False Confessions

For many reasons – including mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics – innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.

While it can be hard to understand why someone would falsely confess to a crime, psychological research has provided some answers – and DNA exonerations have proven that the problem is more widespread than many people think. In more than 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.

The electronic recording of interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions.

Benefits of recording interrogations

For the recording of interrogations to be effective, the entire custodial interrogation must be recorded. This record will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.

In some false confession cases, details of the crime are inadvertently communicated to a suspect by police during questioning. Later, when a suspect knows these details, the police take the knowledge as evidence of guilt. Often, threats or promises are made to the suspect off camera and then the camera is turned on for a false confession. Without an objective record of the custodial interrogation, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of the confession.

For law enforcement agencies, recording interrogations can prevent disputes about how a suspect was treated, create a clear record of a suspect’s statements and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Recording interrogations can also deter officers from using illegal tactics to secure a confession.

A reform that has proven successful

More than 800 jurisdictions nationwide regularly record police interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by Illinois officials of 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement whose time has come.

  • The Supreme Courts of Alaska and Minnesota have declared that, under their state constitutions, defendants are entitled as a matter of due process to have their custodial interrogations recorded.
  • In 2003, Illinois became the first state to require by law that all police interrogations of suspects in homicide cases must be recorded.
  • Police departments in Broward County (Florida) and Santa Clara County (California), among others, have begun to record interrogations without a law requiring them. Proactive policies like these have been adopted because the practice benefits police and prosecutors as well as innocent suspects.

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