Most people assume that because police are charged with upholding the law that they wouldn’t lie in order to perform their duties. This is a very problematic assumption because it’s simply not true. Law enforcement agents can legally lie to suspects (and often do) in order to get suspects to confess or otherwise get them to do what they want. This is yet another reason it is so important to have a skilled criminal lawyer present when you speak with the police.
Why Can Police Lie to Suspects?
Well, in some cases it’s common sense. Contrary to what television and movies may tell you, if you ask someone if they are a police officer and they are, they do not have to tell you and it is not entrapment if they lie about this. If that was the law, then undercover operations would be utterly pointless because then any time a criminal met someone knew they could just ask “pardon, but do you work in the law enforcement industry?” and then refuse to speak to anyone who said yes. Most people agree this would probably be a bad idea.
What is more of a problem though is the fact that police can lie to suspects during their interrogations. Law enforcement supporters argue that this is a critical tool in the fight against crime, that allows police to get suspects to confess why they otherwise would not. In fact, deceit is one of the cornerstones of the famed “reid technique” of interrogation, which involves asking the suspect basic questions about the facts of the case, then moves on to asking basic questions about the suspect’s background and then moves into questioning the suspect about their potential connection to the case itself. In many cases, the interrogator tries to manipulate the suspect into thinking they need to provide more information on the crime than they otherwise would or even confess entirely based on the idea that the police know more than they actually do or have more evidence than they actually do.
While a good criminal defense lawyer can help protect you from these common tricks, many times these interrogations are given in an informal setting, meaning the suspect isn’t detained and therefore doesn’t need to have his rights read to him. This means many suspects don’t realize they should have a defense lawyer present to protect their rights.
The Most Common Police Lies
While there are many ways officers can lie in order to get information from a suspect, some of the most common lies they tell include:
- Lying about evidence: When trying to extract a confession, police will frequently say they have evidence that doesn’t exist. This may include claiming to have physical evidence such as fingerprints or DNA, or witness testimony whether from an eye witness or an accomplice.
- Giving false or misleading tests: The only tests you are legally required to take without a warrant are the blood and breath tests used to determine if you have been driving under the influence. That being said, many people believe they should take a drug, lie detector, gun residue or other test simply because the police ask them to.
Police take advantage of this by asking someone to take a test and then lying about the results. In many cases, they don’t even bother to administer a real test. For example, they will sometimes run a lie detector test without even hooking the cables up or wipe a suspect’s hands with something and then claim the results showed gun residue. In fact, lie detectors can almost never be presented in court as evidence, these are just used as another way for police to trick suspects into providing more information than they would have otherwise. Never agree to take any non-DUI-related test without your criminal defense attorney present.
- Keeping things “off the record:” Tons of cop shows show police officers turning off their tape recorder and saying things are off the record during their interview. But the reality is that nothing is ever actually off the record when you speak with an officer. Anything you say to police can be used against you and don’t believe an office who tells you otherwise.
- Claiming cooperating will help you: Helping police won’t result in reduced charges or lesser penalties, just as refusing to help won’t hurt your case. Not speaking to the police is your right, although lying to the police can hurt you as it can result in obstruction of justice charges.
While you and your criminal defense lawyer may occasionally agree that you should assist the investigation, this is something you should not decide upon without talking to your attorney first -though police will often discourage you from seeking legal counsel. Also, remember that even if a cop says she wants to help you, but needs your side of the story, she doesn’t really care about helping you -she just wants to close her case.
- Saying that bad things will happen to others: While it’s illegal for police to threaten to arrest or punish your family members as this has been ruled likely to result in false confessions, they can still legally claim they will arrest or punish your friends or romantic partners.
Just remember that if police claim someone you care about will go to jail for life, they probably don’t have any more evidence that person than they do you and are just trying to get a confession -plus the prosecutors are the only ones who decide who to press charges against and the judge is the only one who determines someone’s sentence. If the police claim your family member may go to prison or be arrested, tell your criminal defense attorney because this is illegal and could even render a confession invalid.
- Dishonestly obtaining DNA: We already discussed the concept of “surreptitious sampling” in which police can get a DNA sample without a warrant, but it’s worth mentioning here to because it may not be an outright falsehood, this practice is certainly dishonest. Essentially, if you’re offered a drink at the police station and throw away the cup where the police can get a hold of it, they can use DNA from that cup in the case without ever getting a warrant. So if someone gives you a drink or snack at the police station, be wary because it may all be a ploy to get a DNA sample.
The Problem With Police Lies
Aside from the obvious ethical and constitutional issues that arise from these types of falsehoods coming from a position of authority, these lies often result in false confessions. It makes sense. After all, if someone thinks that their DNA is linked to a crime and their confession can help result in a reduced sentence, they are likely to admit guilt despite their innocence. Similarly, some people will do anything to protect someone they care about, even if it means sacrificing themselves in the process by falsely admitting their guilt. Psychologists have shown that certain personality types are prone to agree to police claims even if untrue. Prolonged questioned over hours or days can also weaken people into confessing to a crime even though they are innocent.
These confessions by innocent parties don’t just harm the person who makes them, it also means the person who actually committed the crime is less likely to get caught, possibly putting the public in danger if he goes on to commit more crimes and denying the victim of a crime true justice.
This is why so many criminal justice reform groups want to prevent this tactic by police and either fully stop the practice of police lying during interogations or at least reduce the number of situations in which they can give misleading or inaccurate information to suspects. While few states have yielded to these calls for changes to the criminal investigation process, Illinois has recently become the first state to take action, though their law only affects police interrogations of minors.
If you have any questions about how police can lie to suspects or feel your rights were violated by something the police said to you during an interrogation, call San Diego criminal attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.