To Ruse Or Not To Ruse

It is no secret that detectives have an insatiable appetite to procure a confession from a suspect. Most would tell you it is a great and satisfying result of their tedious efforts besides a token to their communication skills when successful. One of the most controversial police procedures is the use of trickery by law enforcement agents during an investigation but particularly in the course of obtaining a confession or admission.

In my police career, I have claimed to have evidence which did not exist and used many other ruses in order to extract information. Whether it is lying to a suspect, using a scheme, or introducing a staged event, the public still criticizes the legitimacy of police craftiness. The courts have ruled that telling a suspect certain evidence was found at a crime scene when in fact it was not, would not compel him or her to lie about whether they were in or on the premise, in possession of stolen property, or committed the criminal act. Therefore, skulduggery would not be the same as coercion, forcing them to confess to false events, nor would it be entrapment.

Standard law enforcement training cautions against overzealous law enforcement practices in order to uphold the integrity of a properly obtained confession, evidence, and to avoid any type of entrapment issues. Specific to police conduct, the courts declared in Sorrells v. US, “Criminal activity is such that stealth and strategy are necessary weapons in the arsenal of the police officer.” At the same time, the justices had acknowledged the dangers and illegality of entrapment and warned against improper government conduct. Throughout history, however, numerous courts have upheld the use of deception by an investigator to obtain a confession is legal.

Yet, sometimes society still grasps with approval of this concept which they may surmise tarnishes the moral fiber of law enforcement. Defense attorneys love to use the deceptive strategies as a means to discredit the police to juries. Keeping these factors in mind, trickery is a risky practice and should be used with caution. For example, if a suspect calls your bluff or you expose the truth too soon, your credibility may be irreparable. The suspect may subsequently withdraw from conversations and a confession never secured. So why is it a police praxis? Because it is effective.

Early in my detective career, our city had an armed robbery at the Holiday Inn Express which occurred during my on-call week. Early hours of the morning bled into the light of the next day while patrol officers combed the area for clues. Luck would have it, there was enough evidence to follow some leads which brought us to two likely suspects.

However, we didn’t quite have enough for an arrest. My detective partner called one of them in to come to the station for an interview. The suspect obliged. It might sound preposterous for a suspect to voluntarily come to the station to talk about a crime he knew he committed. In actuality, this is common. Suspects want to know what the police know when they think you don’t have hard evidence but only suspicion. Detectives are careful not to reveal their hand too soon.

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So, there we were in the interview room having a conversation with the man. We suspected he was the one who had aimed the gun at the motel employee and demanded money based upon the description given by the victim. It was a weak case at that point in time. Strangely, the suspect was in no hurry to leave our interview room, although he had been informed of his rights and he was free to leave at any time. As long as someone is willing to talk to you, why not? We proceeded.

We had laid a brief foundation of the case, revealing obvious evidence made public and gave a synopsis of the suspect behavior, downplaying the violence of the armed robbery as “two guys who maybe were just desperate, normally good who made a mistake in haste.” Emphasizing economic hardships make good people do bad things got him nodding his head in affirmation often along the way.

At some point in the dialogue, we excused ourselves to get some evidence to show him. He was anxious to see it. The Investigations conference room became a construction site. Amused with an idea, my partner and I assembled “fake” evidence which was a blank security VCR tape (sign of the technological times). We put evidence security tape on the outside with the case number and a very large label, “HOLDIAY INN EXPRESS ROBBERY-LOBBY FOOTAGE”. To most, this might seem like normal hard evidence retrieved from any business. Unfortunately, the business’s security system and cameras were not operating on the date of the armed robbery, thus no footage was captured.

Returning to the interview room, my partner loudly fumbled with the tape displaying his great acting skills until it landed on the table toward the suspect-label visible to him. We could not have planned it better. He quickly moved it on top of a large folder of blank paper labeled: Holiday Inn Express Robbery. It was so hard to contain ourselves and keep a straight face.

The suspect was taken aback at first, then tried to hide his concern. We used this to our advantage and told him we had yet to view the tape, followed up by a question, “What do you think this video footage will show?” There was a long pause. My partner was tapping his finger on the tape to draw attention to it while the suspect thought about his answer.

Suddenly, the suspect rambled in a nervous tone the tape would show he was the suspect holding the gun but he only did it because his friend was dangerous and he was worried his friend would have killed the clerk. Furthermore, he reiterated he had to be the one with the gun so he could save the employee’s life since his friend was high on meth (methamphetamine). Both of them, in fact, had been high, but he claimed his addiction was “under control” but his friend was unpredictable. Of course, this was a game changer. He gave a full statement (albeit full of omissions) and helped to apprehend the second suspect; later turning additional evidence over to the police. Both suspects went to prison.

Whether simple or elaborate ruses are used, they can be powerful. Investigators are granted a wide degree of latitude during interviews and interrogations. Nevertheless, law enforcement officials must be prepared to articulate why deception was used as a means to obtain admissions and confessions. With this privilege and leeway, comes the respectful use of unorthodox procedures and recognizing the hazards and detriment if trickery fails in order to extract information. Nothing trumps good old fashioned police work, and sometimes deceptive tactics are included in that summation. Plus, as cops, we enjoy a little legal fun in our strategies to combat crime.