A confession can serve as powerful evidence of a suspect’s guilt, but criminal defendants have a constitutional right against self-incrimination. An involuntary confession that was coerced by a police officer cannot be used against a defendant in court, regardless of whether it was true. This right relates to the Miranda rights, of which law enforcement is required to inform a suspect before engaging in a custodial interrogation. Sometimes police officers neglect to issue Miranda warnings when required, and sometimes they can question a suspect in an overly coercive manner even when they issue the warnings.
A court will find that a confession was involuntary if law enforcement prevented the suspect from using their free will. If a defendant exercises their right to an attorney, but a police officer continues questioning them, for example, any ensuing confession likely would be viewed as involuntary. Also, if a police officer tells a suspect who needs emergency medical treatment that they will go to the hospital only if they confess, a resulting confession would be involuntary. A confession resulting from a torture-like tactic or the deprivation of basic necessities of life would be involuntary. As these examples show, though, situations in which a defendant can get a confession wiped out as involuntary are often extreme and narrow.
Coercive Police Tactics
Some types of actions by the police usually will lead to a finding that a confession was involuntary. These include threatening illegal actions, physically abusing the suspect, or holding the suspect at gunpoint during questioning. If the suspect is taken into custody and prevented from using the bathroom, or denied food or water, any resulting confession likely will be thrown out by a court. False promises of lenient treatment upon getting a confession also may be viewed as unduly coercive.
Evidence of Coercion
To prove that a confession was involuntary, however, a defendant will need to convince a judge that coercive tactics actually occurred. It could be a hard sell to convince a judge that a police officer promised leniency if the only evidence is the defendant saying so.
On the other hand, the police can threaten to take an action that is legally within their authority. They can tell the suspect that they will arrest or charge a family member whom they suspect of being involved in a crime. Perhaps counterintuitively, the police are allowed to lie to a suspect about the nature of the evidence or the overall strength of the case against them.
Factors Considered by Courts
Most properly trained police officers will not engage in the harsh tactics discussed above. Courts thus usually need to analyze more subjective factors. They may consider the time, place, and level of detail of the police questioning. A long interrogation at the police station will be more coercive than a brief conversation on the street. If law enforcement issued Miranda warnings and heeded a defendant’s efforts to exercise their Miranda rights, a confession is unlikely to be found involuntary.
If the defendant started the interaction, a resulting confession probably will not be involuntary unless the tone and content of the conversation changed dramatically. If they were relatively young, and if no family members were with them, they may have a stronger argument that a confession was involuntary. Sometimes a court will consider whether a defendant has been arrested and charged with previous crimes, which means that they should be more familiar with the criminal justice system and less likely to be coerced into a confession.
While the health of a defendant can be an issue to consider, a defendant who has a mental health condition or who is drunk or drugged may not be able to eliminate a confession on this basis. They must be able to show that their condition prevented them from thinking clearly in the circumstances. However, even if a defendant’s use of alcohol or drugs was illegal, this does not prevent the court from finding that a subsequent confession was involuntary.
Did You Know?
The Innocence Project estimates that about 25 percent of suspects convicted but later proved innocent had confessed their guilt. An infamous example of this phenomenon is the Central Park Jogger case, in which five teenage boys confessed to the brutal rape and beating of a jogger, although their stories did not match and DNA did not link them to the attack. Thirteen years later, another man confessed to the attack, and DNA confirmed his connection. Experts theorize that the boys’ youth and treatment during interrogation, among other factors, contributed to their false confessions.