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What happens during a criminal interrogation?

Most of us have seen criminal interrogations in movies or on television shows. There's one cop, maybe two. One's grizzled and sarcastic. The other may be young, vibrant and idealistic. They head into a small, dark interrogation chamber and sit across a table from someone who's either scared or defiant. The cops make some small talk and then start pressing for information.

The picture's not far from reality, but neither is it entirely right. First, the shows tend to ignore the part where the officers need to read suspects their Miranda rights. They then tend to downplay the fact that most officers follow the same general script. Finally, they overlook the frequency of false confessions.

The legal limits of the criminal interrogation

If you ever find yourself the subject of a criminal interrogation, it's important to remember your rights:

  • Right to remain silent
  • Right to an attorney
  • Right to due process
  • Right to equal protection under the law

The first two of these rights protect you from self-incrimination. Notably, the police don't need to read these rights to you when they arrest you, but they do need to make sure you're aware of them before they question you. If they don't, they can't use your answers as evidence in court.

The last two of these rights shield you from physical and psychological coercion. This goes beyond violence to such things as using threats or offering false promises, or even just denying you the chance to eat, sleep or use the bathroom. An experienced lawyer should be able to block any evidence the police bring to trial after they use these techniques.

What is the Reid interrogation technique?

The Reid interrogation technique is a loosely scripted technique used by most law officers throughout the United States. The Reid website says that officers using the technique will be able to "exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty." But critics claim the technique has led to countless false confessions.

This is because the technique buries subjects under huge psychological pressure. Then it offers them escape routes-but these almost always point to confession. The whole process seems to aim too often for confessions, rather than truth, and the Pennsylvania State Police website seems to support the idea. Its interrogation course description says officers will learn how to "elicit confessions from guilty persons." It doesn't say anything about learning the facts.

How to avoid false confessions

It may not make sense that people would ever confess to crimes they didn't commit, but people give false confessions all the time. There are plenty of reasons, including:

  • Stress
  • Mental impairment
  • Plea bargaining

Studies have even shown that sleep deprivation can lead to false confessions. But even though most people in law enforcement are aware of the dangers, they continue to get false confessions and use them in court. This is because juries still view confessions as powerful proofs of guilt. And, as a result, it is absolutely essential for anyone accused of a crime to guard their rights. If you ever find yourself the subject of a criminal interrogation, you want to exercise your rights to silence, an attorney and due process.

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