Colorado and federal law require that any confession to a crime be given freely and voluntarily. Coerced confessions can be challenged in Colorado courts by showing your confession was involuntary. You can also show that you did not receive a Miranda warning or that your right to a lawyer was violated.
- Frank is interviewed for 48 straight hours by police. Delirious, he confesses to a crime he did not commit.
- Police threaten to hold Jerome in jail for a serious assault charge if he does not confess to disorderly conduct. Jerome agrees to confess.
Finding evidence that a confession was coerced can take a Colorado criminal defense attorney. In this article, a lawyer goes over the following details about coerced confessions:
- 1. What is a coerced confession?
- 2. How can a coerced confession be challenged in court?
- 2.1. You did not receive a Miranda warning
- 2.2. Your confession was not voluntary
- 2.3. You had a right to a lawyer and did not waive it
- 3. The problem of coerced confessions
1. What is a coerced confession?
A coerced confession is an admission of guilt that came after police misconduct. The confession is not the result of a completely voluntary decision by the suspect. Instead, it is created by police who compel, push, and manipulate a suspect into confessing.
Coerced confessions are a serious problem because they are often false confessions. Many people who confess to a crime only because of police coercion did not actually commit the crime.
2. How can a coerced confession be challenged in court?
Coerced confessions can be challenged in several ways:
- You were not told your rights with a Miranda warning,
- Your confession was not voluntary, and
- You had a right to a lawyer at the time of the confession and you did not waive that right.
If you can show this is the case, then using the confession in your trial would violate your rights. Because its use would violate your rights, the confession should be excluded from your trial.
2.1. You did not receive a Miranda warning
Police are allowed to question a suspect who is in police custody. First, though, police have to inform the suspect of their rights. This is a Miranda warning. It was first required by the Supreme Court in the case Miranda v. Arizona.1
A Miranda warning has to tell a suspect that:
- They have a right to remain silent,
- Anything they say can be used as evidence against them,
- They have a right to a lawyer, and
- If they cannot afford a lawyer, they will be provided one.
These warnings are well known in popular culture because police frequently give them in TV shows and movies.
Until you have been “Mirandized,” the law assumes that you do not know these rights. If you confess to a crime before you have received a Miranda warning, you can challenge the confession in court.
Police sometimes coerce a confession by not telling a suspect of their rights. If you confess to a crime and are then given a Miranda warning, your confession should be kept out of court. However, it is often necessary to challenge the prosecutor to make sure it is.
2.2. Your confession was not voluntary
Confessions that were not voluntary are coerced confessions that violate your rights. Confessions can be involuntary if they are the result of physical abuse or through unfair tricks.
Proving that you confession was not voluntary involves all of the context surrounding the confession. If police were overbearing or threatening, it could amount to coercion. For example, confessions are not voluntary if they:
- Come right after brutal physical violence,2
- Are given in exchange for promised protection from mob violence,3
- Come after extremely long interrogations,4
- Come after police officers threaten to arrest family members of the suspect,5
- Are given to police officers posing as doctors or who are friends of the suspect,6 or
- Are given after police threaten to take away a suspect's welfare payments and child custody.7
2.3. You had a right to a lawyer and did not waive it
Police can coerce a confession by forcing you to talk in spite of your right to have a lawyer. These coerced confessions can be challenged because they violate your rights.
You have a right to a lawyer if you are being charged with a crime. Once you have been taken into custody, you can invoke this right. You invoke this right by telling police that you want to talk to a lawyer. You have to invoke this right very specifically. Once you have invoked your right to a lawyer, police have to stop questioning you. They cannot ask you about the crime until your lawyer arrives.
If police continue to question you or trick you into talking, it can violate your Sixth Amendment rights.
3. The problem of coerced confessions
Coerced confessions are a serious problem. Confessions make a police investigation very easy. Worse, juries tend to find confessions very persuasive. As a result, confessions are aggressively pursued by police. They often lead to criminal convictions.
Studies back this up. Many people have been exonerated of crimes by DNA tests conducted by the Innocence Project. One out of every four people set free had confessed to the crime.8 Meanwhile, many people falsely confess to a crime and then take their case to trial. Four out of every five of these defendants end up getting convicted.9
A big factor in a coerced confession is the private interrogation. Police question suspects in the police station, far away from other people. Police misconduct during an interrogation has been difficult to detect. Even when suspects claim they were abused during an interrogation, police often deny it. Between the stories of a criminal suspect and the police, many people still believe the police.
In Colorado, action has been taken to stop coerced confessions. In 2016, Governor Hickenlooper signed HB16-1117 into law.10 This law forces police to record certain interrogations. The law covers suspects who have been accused of felony sexual assault, Class1 felonies, and Class 2 felonies. By recording police when they question suspects of these severe crimes, it can detect a coerced confession. This can protect a suspect from a wrongful conviction. It can also deter police from misconduct.
Challenging a confession that police coerced out of you is crucial. If you do not challenge it, prosecutors will rely on it to convict you of the crime you confessed to committing.
Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936) (where three black suspects were accused of murdering a white farmer, arrested, tortured, and beaten until they confessed to killing the victim and agreed to not change their story).
Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991) (where a suspect confessed to a crime to a jail inmate who was actually an undercover police officer. The officer had told the suspect that other inmates wanted to hurt him, but the officer could protect him in exchange for a confession of guilt).
Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143 (1944) (involving an interrogation process that was 36 hours long, with only a five-minute break)
Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534 (1961) (police threatened to arrest a suspect's wife if he did not confess to a crime).
Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954) (police officer acted like a doctor who was called to the interrogation room to treat the suspect's sinus pain) and Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315 (1959) (a police officer who was a close friend of the suspect told him that he would be in serious trouble if he did not confess to the crime).
Lynumn v. Illinois, 372 U.S. 528 (1963) (police told suspect she would never see her children again if she did not confess to a crime).
Innocence Project, “DNA Exonerations in the United States.”
Steven A. Drizin & Richard A. Leo, “The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World,” 82 N.C. L. Rev. 891 (2004).