Erroneous Self-Incrimination: 6 Interrogation Tactics Which Can Lead to False Confessions

The “bad cop” routine is known to sell movie tickets, but it can buy you a ticket to prison in the wrong circumstances. When viewed through the glorified lens of the silver screen, it’s easy to believe that police officers sometimes need to stretch the limits of the law in order to uphold it. This “end justifies the means” mentality ignores the reality of false confessions and violations of constitutional rights.

When law enforcement officers use manipulation, misinformation, and other unjust tactics during an interrogation, they run the risk of eliciting a false confession from their suspects. The following police interrogation techniques often drive people to wrongly incriminate themselves, even when they are completely innocent of any criminal activity.

1) Long interrogations and sleep deprivation

An ordinary police interrogation may last less than two hours, but officers will sometimes subject suspects to an extended interrogation process. When suspects are questioned for several hours and forbidden from sleeping more than a few hours at a time, they start to experience fatigue and sleep deprivation. One study found that interrogations leading to false confessions lasted an average of around 16 hours. Exhausted suspects are more susceptible to suggestion and less likely to think rationally. This technique is used in conjunction with other tactics to maximize their effectiveness.

2) Minimization

A widely-taught interrogation procedure called the Reid technique has come under fire in recent years for basing its practices on outdated science. One of the steps involved in this technique is called “minimization.” Another tactic often played out in film and television scenarios, minimization involves a show of sympathy surrounding the crime itself. Officers will downplay or minimize the moral severity of a crime, making it sound less objectionable, and attempt to build trust with suspects. With enough time and patience, they can convince innocent suspects that they will suffer lesser consequences if they confess.

3) Lying or misrepresenting evidence

While it may seem morally questionable, officers have the legal right to lie and deceive their suspects in order to coax a confession. An officer might exaggerate the available evidence or suggest that there is evidence that does not exist in reality. For instance, an officer might ask why a suspect’s fingerprints were found on the murder weapon, even if such fingerprints were never found. When an interrogator fabricates enough evidence to make an innocent suspect feel incriminated, and then continues to ignore that suspect’s denial of the charges, the suspect may begin to believe that they have no hope of being released. They may then confess in order to appear cooperative.

4) Body language bias and escalation of questions

Psychologists, legal scholars, and others have argued that, contrary to popular belief, police officers are no better at reading body language than the average person. Interrogators often undergo body language training based on the scientifically discredited Reid technique. Officers will sometimes use the unreliable techniques they learned to read nonverbal cues, overestimate their own abilities as a result, and become wrongly convinced that suspects are lying based on signs of anxiety, fear, or agitation. Officers may read nervousness, a natural reaction to interrogation, as a sign of dishonesty and escalate their line of questioning. As they become more aggressive with the interrogation, the suspects act more anxiously, thereby exhibiting more “suspicious” body language and creating a feedback loop that becomes increasingly more difficult to escape.

5) Suggestion and feeding information

Why do false confessors seem to know details about a crime that they wouldn’t otherwise know? Interrogating officers use the power of suggestion to gradually convince innocent suspects that they are guilty. Suspects may be given facts and minute details about the crime, building up a sense of familiarity with the crime and eventually coming to genuinely believe they were involved. Innocent people can even become convinced that they “blacked out” before committing a crime, and use the provided details to rebuild false memories of the scene.

We commonly believe that an innocent person has nothing to fear in the event of an interrogation. Evidence shows otherwise: the National Registry of Exonerations reports that in 2015, a record 39% of homicide exonerations were for wrongful convictions based on false confessions, and 82% of these cases involved misconduct by government officials.

If you are facing a police interrogation, you should immediately assert your right to retain legal counsel. Never, under any circumstances, should you talk to the police without a defense attorney present, even if you know you are innocent. The Law Office of Barry Wax will ensure that you are treated lawfully by police and help you avoid a miscarriage of justice.

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Written by Law Offices of Barry M. Wax

Law Offices of Barry M. Wax

For 32 years, I have provided both State- and Federal-Level representation for those facing charges ranging from wire fraud, mortgage fraud, and healthcare fraud to identity theft, drug trafficking, money laundering, murder, DUI, domestic violence and numerous other criminal charges. In every case, it is my commitment to one-on-one service and support that has separated the Law Offices of Barry M. Wax from other criminal defense firms. When it comes to your future, you need a strong defense and the ability to make the right choices and regain control of your life.