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10 Police Tactics That Can Lead To False Confessions

by M David Scott
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Police interrogation is designed to extract a confession from a suspect. Officers have several tactics they use to draw out a confession even if the accused is innocent. They can even legally lie to suspects in various ways to get them to falsely admit to committing a crime.

You’re probably thinking that there is no way that a police officer could get you to confess to a crime you didn’t commit. But certain tactics are grueling and are known to break down even the toughest people.

10 They Lie About Having Physical Evidence

It is legal for the police to lie to suspects to get a confession from them. One of the things that police officers and detectives can legally be untruthful about is physical evidence. They may tell the accused that they have that person’s fingerprints or DNA, but it normally requires quite a bit of time to get those types of tests back from labs.

In the case of Oregon v. Mathiason (1977), the defendant had voluntarily come to the police station and was told that he was not under arrest. Police lied to the defendant and said that his fingerprints had been found at the scene. This led to the defendant’s false confession of taking property.[1]

The police are generally allowed to lie about physical evidence and use deception as long as their methods are not proven to be coercive.

9 Fake Test Results

Investigators can tell suspects that they failed a lie detector test even if that is not true. An investigator can dress up as a civilian polygraph expert and use a fake machine with fake results to persuade the accused to give a confession.

The police did this to Darious Mays in the People v. Mays (2009) case. After failing a fake polygraph test, the police told Mays that they knew he was lying. Mays admitted to being present at the scene, and the court ruled that his confession was admissible.[2]

The police can also perform fake chemical and other tests. In the case of People v. Smith (2007), police conducted a “Neutron Proton Negligence Intelligence Test” to see if Smith had fired a gun. But no such test exists.

In the first step of the fake test, they sprayed Smith’s hands with soap and patted them with a paper towel. Then they used a field test kit for testing substances believed to be cocaine. Investigators knew that the test would turn colors, and they told the defendant that it proved he had recently fired a weapon.

8 Tell You That You’re Not Being Interrogated

Police are required to read you the Miranda warning if you are being detained, but they don’t always arrest you to begin with. The officers will sometimes wait to detain a suspect until the person incriminates himself.

The police may start the interview with phrases such as “You’re not under arrest,” “You’re free to go at anytime,” or “This is just a friendly conversation.” If you are innocent, you may feel comfortable talking to the police at this time knowing that you aren’t in trouble.

The best way to protect yourself is to never make a statement without a lawyer present. It is estimated that roughly 80 percent of people waive their Miranda rights to avoid looking suspicious.[3]

Many suspects believe that they can talk themselves out of a situation, but this is exactly what the police want. Once you start talking, their tactics have begun working on you.

7 The Reid Technique

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One of the most common interrogation methods is the Reid technique. You see this in movies with a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” First, they isolate the suspect from friends and family so that the person will feel alone. The “bad cop” starts by stating that the accused is guilty and presents a theory for the crime. The officer ignores all claims of innocence.

The “good cop” then enters the picture and tells the suspect that he understands the reason for committing the crime. The “good cop” tries to convince the accused that good things will happen after confessing, such as a lesser charge or maybe even being set free.

The Reid technique led to a false confession from 16-year-old Nga Truong for the death of her 13-month-old son. Truong was questioned in a small, isolated, windowless room. Then the cops claimed that they knew the truth behind her son’s death.

As the last step, they minimized the crime. They told her that she should confess so that she could get help for what she had done. They also said they understood why she had committed the murder—because she was frustrated with taking care of her siblings. Truong falsely confessed to the murder.[4]

The Reid technique is a psychological attack on suspects and is questioned as a method of interrogation by some legal scholars. They believe that the Reid technique leads to too many false confessions as well as public distrust of the police.

6 Say That Refusal To Cooperate Will Damage Your Case

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Obstructing a police investigation will lead to the DA being much tougher on you. Anyone who does so can be criminally charged. Refusing to answer the investigator’s question is not obstruction of justice, though, even if the police try to make you believe that. The officers will try to imply that a refusal to cooperate will damage a suspect’s case.

Police want suspects to believe that officers can help the accused to receive a lighter sentence if that person cooperates. This is another lie told by police because they have nothing to do with sentencing.[5]

The district attorney is in charge of the case and is the only person who offers leniency. Being open with police is not helpful because anything a suspect says will be used against him in court.

5 Lie About Having Eyewitnesses

Police may tell a suspect that they have an eyewitness who identified the accused at the scene of the crime. But that is another lie that officers are allowed to tell. In the People v. Dominick (1986), detectives told the defendant that the victim identified a picture of him as the one who stabbed and raped her. The victim had not seen any photos at that time, but the defendant confessed to the crime.[6]

Many times, the police tell suspects that they have an eyewitness, but in reality, they haven’t been able to locate anyone yet. Eyewitness identification is frequently inaccurate even when someone does come forward. Eyewitnesses often change their description of the suspect, they identify the suspect from far off, or they are given photos where the suspect’s picture has an unusual marking on it to show whom police suspect.

Police will legally lie as much as possible to gain a confession.

4 Keep You Until They Break You

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Hours of interrogation will drive a person crazy and lead him to admit he’s guilty. These sessions usually last less than two hours. But in some cases, suspects are interrogated for 24 hours.

In many false confession cases, the accused was questioned for an average of 16 hours before admitting to a crime he did not even commit. The stress endured by many suspects is what eventually leads to false confessions.

After 21 hours of questioning, Gary Gauger falsely confessed to murdering his parents. He was sentenced to death but was released three years later after a motorcycle gang bragged about committing the murders.

Stefan Kiszko was interrogated for two straight days by police in England before falsely confessing to sexual assault and murder. He spent 16 years in prison before being released after evidence proved he didn’t do it.[7]

3 They Will Assume You Are Guilty

Investigators go into every case assuming all suspects are guilty and treat them as such. But we all can’t forget—innocent until proven guilty. The police are trained to study body language such as eye contact, gestures, and posture to understand when someone is lying. The art of interpreting body language can help investigators understand if the accused is lying or telling the truth.

Suspects who cross their arms are not open-minded. Those who break eye contact during questioning are lying. The ones who answer questions too fast or too slow are being deceptive. But does this always work?

These are just simply behaviors that people show when they are nervous. If a suspect is innocent and nervous, he is most likely going to exhibit these behaviors, making it easier for police to use other tactics to force him into a false confession.[8]

2 Lie About An Accomplice’s Confession

Another way that police are allowed to legally lie to suspects is telling them that their accomplice confessed. As long as officers don’t lie to the point of coercion, it is legal.

Investigators usually use this technique to extract small details, such as time of the crime and location. Police may ask the accused a question that seems harmless, such as “Tell us where you met your friend.” But an answer is a confession to the facts.

Detectives placed Martin Frazier and his cousin at a bar where a victim was last seen alive. Both men were arrested. While interrogating Frazier, police lied and told him that his cousin had confessed to the crime and told them everything.

Frazier never confessed, but he made statements that he and his cousin were at the bar that night. Those statements to investigators were used to convict Frazier.[9]

1 Act Like They Want To Help You

Police are always telling suspects that they just want to help the accused. “We already have enough evidence to charge you, so this is your one opportunity to tell your story” is just one of the many phrases police will use on a suspect. Police are lying when they tell you that they will help you out. In fact, your best reply is, “I want a lawyer.”[10]

In People v. Gurule (2002), a defendant and his accomplice were wanted for murder. The accomplice gave a full confession stating that the defendant was the killer.

Police lied to the defendant and told him that they had enough evidence to put him away for murder. The defendant then told police that his friends had committed the murder, and his statement was used against him to place him at the scene of the crime.

Police are not there to help you. Their only job is to investigate cases. The hardest cases to prosecute are the ones where suspects don’t talk to the police. The only thing that police will help you do is incriminate yourself.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater