Police Interrogation

Police Interrogations – The Lawful, the Unlawful, and the Safeguards

     Long a staple of late-night television, police interrogations are one of the most important facets of the criminal justice system.  However, in contrast to the tropes of extravagant drama and nail-biting suspense these programs portray to viewers, real police interrogations are not entertaining.  To an individual being questioned, police interrogations can be uncomfortable or even terrifying.  Law enforcement officers have a great deal of freedom to interrogate suspects.  However, limits to this power do exist.  There are restrictions on law enforcement interrogation techniques and constitutional protections for the individual in police custody.  These safeguards are put in place to protect both the rights and safety of individuals as well as the integrity of the criminal justice system.

     Law enforcement officers are prohibited from using any type of physical force to induce a confession or elicit answers to their questions.  This includes battery, torture, or making threats to a suspect.  However, apart from these obvious prohibitions, law enforcement officers have a great deal of flexibility in the interrogation of a suspect.   Some questioning by police can be benign.  Other types of interrogation can involve intense questioning of suspects.  This is to weather down the suspect’s defenses and to get them to start conversing with the police, many times to their detriment. 

     Law enforcement officers have many different strategies they use to interrogate a suspect.  For example, a classic interrogation strategy, is the “good-cop, bad-cop” strategy.  The “bad-cop” hostilely questions the suspect, by stating that they know the suspect is guilty and nothing the suspect could say would change that.  The “good-cop” is more mellow and placates the suspect into thinking that the cops understand why the suspect committed the crime and that the cops could help if the suspect talks to them.  An individual – in this situation or in any of the other strategies law enforcement uses to interrogate individuals – starts to feel it is in their best interest to speak to the law enforcement officers.  Other individuals cave to the stress and anxiety of being questioned by the police. 

      It is also important to understand that many things that seem like they are violations of one’s right are not violations at all.  Law enforcement officers can lie to a suspect to elicit a confession.  For example, police can lie to a suspect in telling them that their cohort already confessed to the crime. [Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969).]  Such lies by law enforcement officers are controversial because it can detract from the reliability of criminal proceedings.  The American criminal justice system is set up so that every person is “innocent until proven guilty” and that in order to prove someone’s guilt, the government must prove that guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  This is a high standard to meet.  Many individuals being questioned by police may feel that the only option is to confess because they feel that that is the easy way out, especially if they believe the police’s inflation of evidence against them.  Many suspects will confess in return for a lighter sentence even if not enough evidence existed for the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, many people end up confessing to crimes they did not actually commit!

     While these interrogation strategies exist to the detriment of the suspect and to the benefit of the police, there are established safeguards.  Any person who is interrogated by the police has a powerful weapon to wield – their constitutional rights.  In the landmark decision Miranda v. Arizona [384 U.S. 436 (1966)], the Supreme Court of the United States held that a person being held in police custody must be informed of their “Miranda rights” before being questioned.  Any derogation from this requirement renders the police interrogation unlawful.

     The Miranda case mandates that to use condemning evidence gathered by police during an interrogation in a criminal court proceeding against the suspect, law enforcement officers must advise the suspect of their constitutional rights.  These are known as a Miranda warning.  These rights extend to any situation in a criminal proceeding where an individual’s freedom is curtailed such that they reasonably feel they are not able to leave police custody.  A person does not have to be arrested to be in police custody.  A general recitation of the rights is the following:

You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.  You can exercise these rights at any time and stop answering questions.  Do you understand the rights as I have explained them?

     While variations exist, this is a typical Miranda warning given before police interrogation.  There are three main facets of this warning. 

  • Right to remain silent: The Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination applied outside criminal court proceedings when a suspect is in police custody. The Fifth Amendment holds that an individual cannot “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” [S. Const. amend. V]  This is where the colloquial phrase “I take the fifth!” is derived from.  In Miranda, the Court held that a suspect must be informed of their right to remain silent in the face of police questioning, which protects them from implicating themselves in a crime.  Also, as a suspect must understand they are under no obligation to speak to the police, they must also understand the consequences if they do decide to speak.  Thus, the suspect must be told by the police that any statements they decide to make during the interrogation can be used by the prosecution in its case to convict the suspect of a crime.

 

  • Right to an attorney: The Court also held that a person must be told of their right to have an attorney present during questioning.  An attorney is an important advocate and guardian to have when being interrogated by the police.  They can guide the suspect into acting in their best interests, whether that is talking to the police or staying silent.  Further, any coercive questioning by police is curtailed when an attorney is present, as law enforcement will be less inclined to do so, or an attorney will be able to take control of the situation.  If there is any question on whether police illegally questioned the suspect or applied any physical force, an attorney is there as a witness.  The Court also held that the suspect must be informed that their financial ability is of no consideration regarding their right to have an attorney present.  An indigent individual has the right to have an appointed lawyer present during questioning.

 

  • Cease Questioning: The Court lastly held that the suspect must know that they can exercise these rights at any time. If they do not ask for an attorney, or they start talking to the police after the initial Miranda reading, a suspect is able to exercise their rights later.  For example, suppose a suspect is “mirandized” and then starts to answer police questions without a lawyer.  At any time if the suspect gets uncomfortable in any way, they can tell the police to stop questioning them and that they want an attorney.  The police then must stop and respect the suspect’s exercise of their Miranda rights.

 

     Miranda Rights are thus an important defense suspects have against police questioning.  Being aware of one’s rights protects individuals during police interrogations. Without such protections, individuals may incriminate themselves during such interrogations where they would not have done so if they had been aware of their rights.  Once a suspect exercises these rights, police must stop their interrogation. 

     It is imperative for the public to have faith in the criminal justice system.  Faith cannot exist where there is doubt as to the voluntariness of confessions given to police during an interrogation.  The rationale of advising suspects of these rights before police interrogation is to ensure that any answers and/or confessions made to the police are voluntary.  For anyone to make any meaningful decision in life, they must be aware of all the facts.  And because whether an individual is cooperative (or not) with law enforcement could implicate their liberty if the suspect is indicted on charges, it is vital that the suspect understands all the constitutional rights they have.  Because of this importance, any continued questioning after a suspect elects to remain silent and asks for a lawyer constitutes an illegal interrogation and anything a suspect says will not be admissible in court. 

     In conclusion, while police have an array of tools to use to interrogate a suspect, protections are built into the criminal justice system.  Law enforcement officers must read a suspect in custody their Miranda Rights before questioning commences.  Any deviation from this rule will render what the suspect says inadmissible in court.  This preserves the reliability of the criminal justice system by ensuring that the suspect understands the rights the U.S. Constitution provides, and that law enforcement respects these rights.  Lastly, to further safeguard these rights, when someone in custody finds themselves being questioned by police, there are two things they should do.  First, there should only be one sentence they say to the authorities – Ask for a lawyer.  And until that lawyer arrives, they need to do the second thing – Remain silent.

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