It may seem counterintuitive in a country that values democracy, but in many cases, it’s perfectly legal for law enforcement agents to be less than truthful when questioning people. In fact, it’s a common tactic to lie to suspects.
Law enforcement officers can lie
Police cannot physically abuse suspects in custody, but they can use psychological manipulation, including lying. Frequently, officers will split up cohorts to extract confessions and then tell each individual that the other confessed, even if they haven’t.
Another popular misdirection tool is the Reid Technique, in which police pretend to have convincing evidence proving guilt. While interrogating suspects, officers speak in a manner that presumes fault. It’s a powerful strategy that too frequently pushes people into making false confessions.
The plague of false confessions
Psychological manipulation is a powerful tactic, and people regularly make false confessions when under its sway. Criminal defense advocates at the Innocence Project looked at 375 DNA exonerations and found that 29% of the wrongful convictions were rooted in false confessions.
Age also plays a role. The part of the brain that regulates decision-making and rationality doesn’t fully form until mid-to-late 20s. As a result, young people are especially vulnerable to mental manipulation by authority figures.
Are states reconsidering police interrogation tactics?
In 2021, Illinois and Oregon are the only two states that forbid law enforcement agents from lying to minors in custody. However, all 50 states allow officers to use the Reid Technique and other mental tactics on adults.
Despite a lack of statutes that prohibit police from lying to suspects, juries and judges are becoming more aware of the dubious ethics of the practice. As such, criminal defense lawyers might be able to craft convincing arguments that exonerate individuals who’ve been tricked into false confessions.