False Confessions & Recording Of Custodial Interrogations

How could someone confess to a crime one didn’t commit?

Many of the nation’s more than 360 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved some form of a false confession. It can be difficult to understand why a person would wrongly confess to a crime they did not commit. Researchers who study this phenomenon have determined that the following factors contribute to or cause false confessions:

• Real or perceived intimidation of the suspect by law enforcement

• Use of force by law enforcement during the interrogation, or perceived threat of force

• Compromised reasoning ability of the suspect, due to exhaustion, stress, hunger, substance use, and, in some cases, mental limitations, or limited education. Young people who do not understand their rights and are taught to please authority figures are particularly vulnerable.

• Devious interrogation techniques, such as untrue statements about the presence of incriminating evidence

• Fear, on the part of the suspect, that failure to confess will yield a harsher punishment

Recording interrogations prevents false confessions from leading to wrongful convictions

The entire interrogation – during the time in which a reasonable person in the subject’s position would consider himself to be in custody and a law enforcement officer’s questioning is likely to elicit incriminating responses – should be electronically recorded. States should enact statutes or court rules that require custodial interrogations for at least the most serious crimes to be recorded in their entirety. This will improve transparency and create an indisputable account of what happened during the interrogation — which benefits the entire system.

Benefits to the Innocent: 

  • Creating a record of the entire interrogation, including the interaction leading up to the confession
  • Ensuring that the suspect’s rights are protected in the interrogation process
  • Creating a deterrent against improper or coercive techniques that might be employed absent the presence of a recording device
  • Alerting  investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries if the suspect has mental limitations or other vulnerabilities that make him or her more susceptible to a false confession

Benefits to Law Enforcement: 

  • Preventing disputes about how an officer conducted himself or treated a suspect
  • Creating a record of statements made by the suspect, making it difficult for a defendant to change an account of events originally provided to law enforcement
  • Permitting officers to concentrate on the interview, rather than being distracted by copious note-taking during the course of the interrogation
  • Capturing subtle details that may be lost if unrecorded, which help law enforcement better investigate the crime
  • Enhancing public confidence in law enforcement, while reducing the number of citizen complaints against the police

Which states require recording of custodial interrogations?

Half the states in the country and the District of Columbia require recording of certain custodial interrogations either through statute or court action. Federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, DEA and ATF, are required to record all custodial interrogations of individuals suspected of any federal crime.  

The states that require recording of custodial interrogations are: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

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