NY Court of Appeals Upends Police Tricks Behind Interrogation Doors

False confessions have long been recognized as one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Case studies have proven that an individual’s confession to a crime is not always indicative of the confessor’s actual guilt. In fact, a number of external factors may lead an individual to falsely confess to committing a crime. According to studies conducted by the Innocence Project, many false confessions have been prompted by conditions in which the confessor was placed under  duress during police interrogations, or was prodded to give false information as a result of police coercion or subterfuge tactics. Laurie Shanks, clinical professor of law at Albany Law School in Albany, recently explained that “[t]here’s a perception that people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit, [b]ut the science is that absolutely they do.”

Yet, the rule of law determining the voluntariness of a confessor’s statement, when such statements are adduced by police subterfuge, has remained a vital and perplexing issue within our criminal justice system. The admissibility of such confessions has been a hotly debated topic among criminal defense practitioners and prosecutors, irrespective of recent case studies proving the fallibility of such confessions. In spite of recent findings, prosecutors have continued to hold the upper hand when arguing that such confessions are voluntary and admissible at trial, relying on the proposition that certain police ruses are essential to conducting meaningful interrogations of suspects, and vital to the police’s ability to expeditiously solve certain crimes.  Under this guise, the Courts have heeded to the government’s “demands” and have consequently become more laxed in uprooting such questionable police tactics –noting that confessions are “essential to society’s compelling interest in finding, convicting, and punishing those who violate the law.” McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 181 (1991). As such, courts around the nation have routinely accepted that “deceit and subterfuge are within the ‘bag of tricks’ that police may use in interrogating suspects.” State v. Schumacher, 37 P.3d 6, 13-14 (Idaho Ct. App. 2001); See also United States v. Bell, 367 F.3d 452, 461 (5th Cir. 2004) (observing that deception is “not alone sufficient to render a confession inadmissible”).  

In New York, however, it appears that the courts are becoming less reluctant to address this significant legal issue , and more inclined than many of their sister state courts to fully determine on a case by case determination whether a confession could be deemed involuntary when police misrepresentations work to overcome a confessor’s will. See N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 60.45 [2][b][i]  (treating as “involuntarily made” a statement of a defendant that was  elicited “by means of any promise or statement of fact, which promise or statement creates a substantial risk that the defendant might falsely incriminate himself”).

Notably, the New York Court of Appeals has recently made clear that not all police subterfuge is acceptable during the interrogations of suspects. People v. Thomas, 2014 WL 641516 (N.Y. 2014). In Thomas, the defendant had been prodded by police to take responsibility for injuries suffered by his four-month-old son, who died from intracranial injuries purportedly caused by abusively inflicted head trauma, in order to save his wife from arrest. The Court held that the defendant’s confession,  admitting that he had inflicted traumatic head injuries on the infant, was involuntary as a result of “[t]he various misrepresentations and false assurances used [by] [police] to elicit and shape [the] defendant’s admissions.” Id. The court explained that the police officers false representations to the defendant had manifestly raised a substantial risk of false incrimination. The Court was extremely troubled by police lying to the defendant “that his wife had blamed him for [their] [son’s] injuries and then threatened that, if he did not take responsibility, they would “scoop” Ms. Hicks out from the hospital and bring her in, since one of them must have injured the child.” Id.  The Court also observed that “there [was] not a single inculpatory fact in defendant’s confession that was not suggested to him. He did not know what to say to save his wife and child from the harm he was led to believe his silence would cause.” Id.

The New York Court of Appeals also recently affirmed the Second Department’s decision in People v.  Aveni, 100 A.D.3d 228 (2d Dep’t 2012) where the appellate court  had also found that the defendant’s confession was coerced  as a result of the police repeatedly deceiving the defendant about the status of his girlfriend’s health condition. In Aveni, the defendant had been prompted by police to make incriminating statements about the herion overdose of his girlfriend. During interrogation, the police had falsely told the defendant that his girlfriend was still alive, “and implicitly threaten[ed] him with a homicide charge if he remained silent.” The court explained that the police made the defendant believe that “the consequences of remaining silent would lead to the [girlfriend’s] death, since the physicians would be unable to treat her, which “could be a problem” for him.” Id. In upholding the Second Department’s decision, the NY Court of Appeals observed that “[t]he false prospect of being severely penalized for remaining silent, raised by defendant’s interrogators, was, in the court’s view, incompatible with a finding that defendant’s confession was voluntary beyond a reasonable doubt.” People v. Aveni, 2014 WL 641511 (N.Y. 2014).  It noted that “the Appellate Division used the correct legal standard in its reversal, [and] [i]ts determination that the potential to overwhelm defendant’s free will was realized was plainly one of fact.” Id.

Steven Drizin, clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago commented on the recent decisions in New York, noting that “[t]he court did not set any hard and fast rules, but it did issue some clear warnings that these tactics will be scrutinized closely in future.”  He explained that until now “[t]here’s been too much deference given to police officers, and they’re accustomed to having free rein with suspects behind interrogation doors.”

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