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Involuntary Confession

An admission, especially by an individual who has been accused of a crime, that is not freely offered but rather is precipitated by a threat, fear, torture, or a promise.

The criminal justice system relies on confessions by defendants to help prove guilt at trial or to induce a guilty plea. POLICE INTERROGATION of suspects has long been a controversial area of U.S. CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, as critics charge that coercion and trickery have unfairly and unconstitutionally led to involuntary confessions. The FIFTH AMENDMENT grants a suspect the PRIVILEGE AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION, yet many suspects confess anyway. Because questioning of suspects takes place behind station house doors, little empirical evidence is available to document what usually occurs in a police interrogation.

The 1931 federal WICKERSHAM COMMISSION looked at police practices throughout the United States. This commission raised the issue of coercive interrogations, coining the term the third degree to describe physical and mental abuse inflicted on suspects during questioning. From 1936 to the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt with confessions admitted in state criminal proceedings in terms of the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment's DUE PROCESS CLAUSE. The Court used a "voluntariness" test, which depended on the "totality of the circumstances," to determine whether a confession must be excluded from evidence. This approach became difficult to administer, as it called on courts to find and appraise all relevant facts for each case.

Legal debate over the validity of confessions gained momentum in the 1960s, as the U.S. Supreme Court took a hard look at the constitutionality of criminal procedure. In ESCOBEDO V. ILLINOIS, 378 U.S. 478, 84 S. Ct. 1758, 12 L. Ed. 2d 977 (1964), Justice ARTHUR J. GOLDBERG stated that "a system of CRIMINAL LAW enforcement which comes to depend on the 'confession' will, in the long run, be less reliable and more subject to abuses than a system which depends on extrinsic evidence independently secured through skillful investigation." In Escobedo the defendant's confession was suppressed because it was obtained in violation of his RIGHT TO COUNSEL at the time of interrogation.

In 1966 the Supreme Court set out the Miranda warnings (MIRANDA V. ARIZONA, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 1694), which the police must communicate to a person who is placed in their custody. The warnings cover the right to remain silent, the fact that anything said can and will be used against the individual in court, the right to have a lawyer during interrogation, the right to have an attorney appointed if the individual cannot afford one, and the right to exercise the privilege against SELF-INCRIMINATION at any time during interrogation. These warnings provide basic avenues of inquiry for a court evaluating the "voluntariness" of a confession.

Miranda has been criticized by those who see it as an unfair restriction on law enforcement. Nevertheless, empirical studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s have concluded that the Miranda warnings have not appreciably reduced the amount of talking by suspects, and police officers obtain about as many confessions now as they did before Miranda.

Yet the protection afforded to suspects by Miranda can be illusory. Police officers may sometimes give the required warnings but then engage in tactics that could make the confession involuntary. It is clear, however, that if police officers use interrogation practices that in the view of a court violate basic notions of human dignity, a confession produced from these practices will be judged involuntary. Physical violence, threats of violence, prolonged isolation, deceit, and trickery are some tactics that may render a confession involuntary, even when no danger exists that the confession is untrue. A defendant's age, state of health, mental condition, and intelligence are also relevant factors. The more vulnerable a defendant is, the more likely a court is to find certain interrogation practices abusive, leading to the conclusion that the confession was involuntary.

Each possibly relevant factor must be evaluated in the context of each specific case. For example, no absolute rule exists that police trickery of a defendant will render a confession involuntary. However, if a defendant is particularly youthful and ignorant, such trickery may be an important factor inducing a court to find a confession involuntary.


Friedman, Lawrence M. 1993. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books.

O'Neill, Timothy. 2002. "Ruling is Stong Shield on 'Involuntary' Confession." Chicago Daily Law Bulletin 148 (December 20): 6.

White, Welsh S. 1998. "What Is an Involuntary Confession Now?" Rutgers Law Review 50 (summer): 2001–57.

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