Ever heard of “polygraph by copier”?
If you haven’t, here’s how it works:
A detective loads three sheets of paper into a Xerox machine.
“Truth” has been typed onto the first sheet.
“Truth” has been typed onto the seond sheet.
“Lie” has been typed onto the third sheet.
Then a criminal suspect is led into the room and told to put his hand against the side of the machine.
“What is your name?” asks the detective.
The suspect gives it.
The detective hits the copy button, and a page comes out: “Truth.”
“Where do you live?” asks the detective.
The suspect gives an address, the detective again hits the copy button, and a second page appears: “Truth.”
Then comes the bonus question: “Did you or did you not kill Big Jim Tate on the evening of….?”
The suspect answers. The detective presses the copy button one last time, and the sheet appears: “Lie.”
“Well, well, well, you lying little bastard,” says the detective.
Convinced that the police have found some mysterious way to peer into the darkest recesses of his criminality, the suspect “gives it up” and makes a full confession.
Yes, contrary to what many believe, police can legally use deceit to obtain a confession.
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled, in United States v. Russell: “Nor will the mere fact of deceit defeat a prosecution, for there are circumstances when the use of deceit is the only practicable law enforcement technique available.”
In that case, the Court narrowly upheld a conviction for methamphetamine production even though the defendant had argued entrapment.
So what types of interrogative deceit might a police officer use to develop admissible evidence of a suspect’s guilt?
The general rule is that deception can be used so long as it’s not likely to cause an innocent person to commit a crime or confess to a crime that s/he didn’t commit.
Consider the following examples:
- A detective is interviewing a suspect in a rape case. “Oh, that girl,” he says, thus implying that the victim was a slut and had it coming. The suspect, thinking he’s dealing with a sympathetic listener, starts bragging about his latest conquest–only to learn, too late, that his listener isn’t so simpatico after all.
- “We found your prints on the gun”–or on any number of other surfaces. Actually, there are few good places on a pistol to leave prints. And those that are left can be smeared. The same goes for other surfaces. But if a suspect can be led to believe the cops have his prints, a confession is often forthcoming.
- A police officer is interrogating a suspect in a murder case. “He came at you, didn’t he?” asks the cop. The suspect, who murdered the victim in cold blood, thinks he has an escape route. “Yeah, he came at me”–this confirming that, yes, he did kill the deceased.
- “Your partner just gave you up” is a favorite police strategen when there is more than one suspect involved. If one suspect can be made to “flip”–turn–against the other, the case is essentially wrapped up.
- Interrogating a bank robbery suspect, a cop might say: “We know you didn’t do the shooting, that you were only the wheelman.” This implies that the penalty for driving the getaway car is far less than that for killing someone during a robbery. In fact, criminal law allows every member of the conspiracy to be charged as a principal.
- “I don’t give a damn what you did,” says the detective. “Just tell me why you did it.” For some suspects, this offers a cathartic release, a chance to justify their guilt.
- The “good cop/bad cop” routine is known to everyone who has ever seen a police drama. Yet it continues to yield results so often it continues to be routinely used. “Look, I believe you,” says the “good” cop, “but my partner’s a real asshole. Just tell me what happened so we can clear this up and you can go.”
- “So,” says the detective, “why do you think the police believe you did it?” “I have no idea,” says the suspect, confident that he isn’t giving up anything that might come back to haunt him. “Well,” says the cop, “I guess you’ll just have to make something up.” Make something up sounds easy, but is actually a trap. The suspect may end up giving away details that could incriminate him–or lying so brazenly that his lies can be used against him.
So is there a best way for a suspect to deal with an invitation to waive his Miranda right to remain silent?
Yes, there is. It’s to refuse to say anything and to ask for permission to call a lawyer.
That’s the preferred method for Mafia hitmen–and accused police officers.
Any cop who finds himself under investigation by his department’s Internal Affairs unit automatically shuts up–and calls his lawyer.
Any other response–no matter how well-intentioned–may well result in a lengthy prison sentence.