Why should police officers be allowed to lie to citizens? They should not— but it is a standard practice and, amazingly, legal. Routinely, interrogators obtain confessions by lying to defendants.
“We already have your fingerprints—just tell us what happened” when there are no fingerprints is a classic example.
Of course, deception can be useful in making any kind of a sale, but we don’t allow the seller of a house or a car to flat-out lie about a “material” fact. We call that fraud.
Why then do we allow lies when police question suspects? Because it often works to get honest confessions, and law enforcement uses the tactic regularly. And, honest confessions are the key to solving many crimes.
Sometimes, however, the pressure of being interrogated causes innocent people to confess to make the police officers happy. Younger, less intelligent and more poorly educated suspects are more likely to falsely confess. But even smart sophisticated people sometimes crumble under the pressure and admit to things they have not done just to stop the interrogation.
As the public is just starting to understand, people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit. The result is horrific: sometimes, Innocent people go to prison and the dangerous felons remain free. This is not usually the result of a dishonest officer. Most of the time when an innocent person is charged, the officer genuinely believes him to be guilty. But the false confession is used to “prove” that the correct person was charged.
It is not too much to demand honesty from law enforcement. Shouldn’t we be able to trust police officers as much as car sales people? This is especially important when public trust in law enforcement is low and hostility to law enforcement is high. We want to improve trust and public support of police officers. We want officers and citizens alike not to be afraid for their own safety.
Congress and state legislatures should change the law so that we can rely on the truth from law enforcement.
And that is the point of this article in the NY Times, “We Are the ‘Exonerated 5.’ What Happened to Us Isn’t Past, It’s Present”.