Illinois and Oregon are the first states to ban law enforcement from deceiving minors during interrogation, but police can lie to the rest of us everywhere else in the U.S.
Picture it. Your teenager was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got taken into custody. Officer Friendly would like to ask him a few questions. As the hours tick by, you’re increasingly worried, and so is your kid in the interrogation room. Maybe you called your lawyer, maybe you’re waiting right outside to pick him up, but police can lie and say you’re not. Unbeknownst to you, they already told Junior that you called and confirmed his guilt. Shaken, worn down, afraid and confused, he confesses to something he didn’t do. Now he has a criminal record that will follow him for years to come.
Does this scenario seem unlikely? It’s not. Police in the United States have long been permitted to use deceptive tactics during interrogations, but two states are doing something about it. Last week, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker (D) and Oregon governor Kate Brown (D) signed the first laws in the country banning police and other law enforcement officers from lying to minors during questioning. The Illinois legislation is part of a package designed to protect kids and other vulnerable people (such as those with intellectual disabilities) from becoming hopelessly enmeshed in a prison system where they don’t belong.
By their very existence, however, the new laws illuminate two other important points. If Illinois and Oregon are the first states to ban police from deceiving minors, that means police can lie to minors in 48 other states. And while minors may be protected (come January, in Illinois), police can lie to adults with impunity, just like everywhere else.
Why would police lie, though? Because it’s effective.
Despite all the idealistic happytalk about freedom, the United States is a highly militarized, authoritarian country compared to its industrialized peers on the “free” edge of the world stage. In recent years, and especially after the mass demonstrations and crackdowns following George Floyd’s death at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin last summer, observers have raised legitimate concerns about the U.S. becoming a police state. Thrust into the position of protector and cultural hero, police are expected to crack down on dissent and defend the interests of property owners and those who consider themselves to be “real” Americans. Police can lie, abuse, and even kill in service of the Establishment, and be praised for doing so.
In the zeal to secure convictions, however, law enforcement too often manipulates innocent Americans into giving false confessions. In You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, law professor and former criminal defense attorney James Duane explains just how easy it is to get suckered by deceptive interrogation tactics.
Using psychological tricks, police can lie, telling you that they have evidence of your guilt when they don’t. They may ask you to repeat your statement several times, until they catch a slight re-wording that “proves” you’re lying, when you’re merely frightened and stressed out from being held by the police. Alternatively, they may make fake offers of clemency or claim that you’re not being recorded (when you are) in order to get you to say something you regret later. You’d be surprised how many people will sign off on a false confession just to make the trouble stop, thinking that they’ll lawyer up later and prove their innocence, but the confession is held as incontrovertible proof of guilt by the jury. Minors and people with intellectual disabilities are disproportionately affected by these tactics, but nobody is immune.
Illinois and Oregon are to be commended for banning police from deceiving minors, but there’s a long way to go before the police, as an institution, deserve the trust that conservatives, in particular, have placed in them. That is, unless the reason they trust the “thin blue line” is less about expecting police to be as honest as defendants must be in court, and more about law enforcement’s willingness to lie to defend a system where some people are naturally better than others, and those who get sucked into the carceral system can be exploited for profit.
Remember the Fifth Amendment, or you may have to live the Thirteenth.