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Info Series: Police officers lying to force a confession

It might not seem like it to most people, but law is not something that just happens in the abstract confines of a courtroom. What happens in a courtroom appears in real life all the time and most people likely don’t even realize it. My goal with this Info Series is to show you those incidents of when law from a court room appears in real life.

We’ve all seen police interrogations on television shows before. The suspect is brought in to an interrogation room with a one-way mirror where the suspect can be observed and recorded. One of the things that the police can do when interrogating a suspect is to lie and, for example, tell the suspect that they have evidence linking him to the crime already so he might as well confess.

While it may seem strange that the police would lie, doing so during an interrogation can be perfectly legal thanks to a line of cases beginning with the 1969 US Supreme Court case of Frazier v. Cupp. In that case, Frazier was convicted of second-degree murder in Oregon. He appealed his conviction alleging, among other things that the police had lied in telling him that (a) his associate had already fingered him for the crime, and (b) that the victim had been at fault too by starting the fight that eventually lead to the death. The US Supreme Court disagreed and said that such questioning by the police can be proper, but it depends on the totality of the circumstances under which such interrogation occurs.

As with most things in law, the outcome in each case depends. In subsequent cases, courts have drawn a distinction between lies about intrinsic and extrinsic facts. The former concerns the suspect’s connection to the crime and is more likely to be permissible. The latter comprises misrepresentations that are likely to confuse the suspect and prevent him from making a rational and informed decision about what to say or do. Because of this, in general, lies about extrinsic facts are more likely to be coercive and less likely to be permissible.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.