Confessions: Part I

Confessions: Part I

Everyone who has watched television or movies knows something about the Miranda rights warnings.  These warnings include (1) the right to remain silent; (2) anything said to police can be used against you in a court of law; and (3) the right to have an attorney present during police questioning; (4) and if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.  These warnings must be given by police to any person subject to custodial interrogation.  

Where Miranda applies, police must obtain a waiver of these rights from the person before he or she may be questioned, and the statements may be used as evidence.   A person’s waiver of these rights must be voluntary.  Lawyers often file motions to suppress evidence based on Miranda violations, arguing that police made a mistake regarding the required warnings and or that the waiver of rights was not voluntarily provided.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has limited the application of Miranda and created many restrictions on its use as a tool for the suppression of evidence by defense counsel. 

Part II of the Confessions article will address the many limitations on the Miranda doctrine, and the arguments that still apply.   However, it is important to remember that there are many other arguments, even where Miranda warnings are properly given and a waiver is voluntarily provided, that may exclude the use of a defendant’s statements to police at trial.

Coercing A Confession

One argument to suppress statements is that the police coerced a confession or admission from the defendant.  Use of physical force by police today is not as prevalent as it was the past, though it occasionally happens.  

It has become much harder for police to explain bruises sustained by individuals while in custody, and the increasing practice of recording police interrogations limits the use of physical force to coerce confessions.  More commonly today, police are trained in psychologically coercive interrogation methods that subtly apply pressure to persons being interrogated, which cause the accused to involuntary make incriminating statements.  

Having a criminal defense lawyer who is well-versed in the art of interrogation is essential to successfully suppressing statements made in responsive to psychological coercion.  A successful motion to suppress such statements also requires overcoming the judicial and prosecutorial bias that no suspect would ever confess to a crime not actually committed.  

Though history has proven otherwise, convincing judges and/or prosecutors of false confessions remains challenging.

Ways Police May Coerce a Confession

In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, police, suspecting a missing person has been murdered, visit a man they suspect of foul play, and deliberately, and persistently, inquire regarding his knowledge of the missing man.  The murderer, who has buried the victim’s body beneath the floorboards of his home, is so overwhelmed by his crime that he imagines he can hear the victim’s heart still beating.  Tormented by the incessant pounding and what he perceives to be feigned calmness and indifference on the part of the police, he confesses.

The officers were satisfied.  My manner had convinced them.  I was singularly at ease.  They sat and while I answered cheerily, they chatted familiar things.  But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone.  My head ached and I fancied a ringing in my ears:  but still they sat and chatted . . . the noise arose over all and continually increased.  It grew louder – louder – louder!  And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.  Was it possible they heard not?  Almighty God! – no, no!  They heard! – they suspected! – they knew – they were making a mockery of my terror! – this I thought and this I think.  But anything was better than this agony!  Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!  I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! –

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more!  I admit the deed! – tear up the planks – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Many modern-day interrogation techniques can impose similar psychological, and physical, distress calculated to inspire a suspect to make a confession.  Judges and jurors tend to believe incriminating words spoken from a defendant’s mouth—they think, “why would he admit guilt if he is innocent?”  Not only are an accused’s incriminating statements the most powerful prosecution evidence, but what was reported in a nineteenth-century legal treatise is still true today—“It is far easier to sit in the shade rubbing red pepper into some poor devil’s eyes than to be out in the sun hunting up evidence.” 

Legally, police may lie; promise things they cannot do or deliver; threaten to bring greater charges than those pending; claim more power or influence over prosecutors than exists; lead the accused to believe many things that are not true; and suggest excuses to a defendant’s actions that are not recognized as legal defenses. 

They may claim the existence of a fingerprint, or DNA, a witness or other evidence when such does not exist.  Sometimes decisions of courts seem to suggest the belief that all is fair by police in the crusade against crime.  In federal courts, the defendant’s condition at the time of questioning (e.g., going through withdrawal from drug use, mental illness, intoxication, low intelligence) is no longer important to the question of admissibility for his statements. 

Rather it is the knowledge by police of the defendant’s condition that appears to be important.  You can bet the police will claim that they did not know of the condition in order to support the admissibility of the statement. 

The government will also claim that whatever the defendant said, under whatever existing conditions, was “voluntary.”   Even though the burden is on the government to prove a defendant’s statement was made voluntarily, it is really up to the defense – practically speaking – to convince the court otherwise.

Challenges The Prosecution Faces After Obtaining a Confession

Obtaining a confession is only half the battle.  In order to admit the confession into evidence, the prosecution may face challenges under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and their state counterparts.  Many of these challenges may focus on what some call “technical” violations. 

For instance, was the confession obtained after the defendant was confronted with illegally seized evidence?  Did the police comply with the Miranda requirements?  Did police ignore the accused’s request to have counsel present?  Did the police delay in taking the accused to court? 

On the other hand, some challenges address the central issue of voluntariness:  incriminating statements that are the result of physical or psychological coercion, around the clock browbeating, promises likely to produce a lie, and/or exploitation of the defendant’s physical or mental distress.

Put simply, Miranda is not the only issue regarding incriminating statements.  An accused must be sure to obtain legal counsel that will explore all potential avenues of attack to suppress incriminating statements by the accused.  The Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. has successfully litigated and suppressed both statements and confessions.   Attorney Calcagni is experienced in the art of interrogation and the false confessions that may come from psychologically coercive interrogation techniques.  If you are charged with a crime and were forced to make statements or a confession to police, call us today for a free consultation.