Use Caution When Expressing the Urgency for a Suspect to Confess

Written By: Reid
May 01, 2005

It is human nature to put off unpleasant decisions. Being in my 50's, I know that I need to eventually get long-term care insurance. Even though I fully intend to do this, I can come up with all sorts of reasons why I do not have to do it today. Many guilty suspects experience the same thought process during an interrogation. The suspect accepts the fact that the investigator knows that he committed the crime and the suspect is fully aware that the right thing to do is to tell the truth. However, because telling the truth will result in adverse consequences, the suspect decides to put off the unpleasant task of confessing. To counter this tendency of human nature, it is a common interrogation tactic for the investigator to express an urgency for the suspect to tell the truth now.

Stressing the urgency of making a decision is hardly unique to criminal interrogation. One of the cornerstones of successful sales is to persuade the consumer to make a buying decision at the present time. Some of these tactics reward immediacy in making a decision. For example, temporary price reductions for a product or making the product unavailable after a particular time period, e,g, "These will never be sold at this price again, and there are only 25 left!". If compliance is the objective, a very effective persuasive tactic is to punish delayed behaviors. For example, if a utility bill is not paid on time the consumer must pay a higher rate. Similarly, for each day a student is late turning in an assignment, the grade is decreased by one letter. These common-place examples illustrate that the persuasive tactic of urgency can shape behaviors either through rewards or punishments.

During an interrogation, the investigator is restricted from engaging in certain types of rewards or punishments, but certainly there is no blanket prohibition banning any type of reward or punishment. While it is not permissible is to reward a suspect with a promise of leniency in exchange for a confession, but it is certainly permissible to reward a suspect who confesses by expressing understanding toward their decision to commit the crime and even complementing them on their decision to tell the truth. Also, it is not permissible to punish the suspect who maintains his innocence by slamming his head against a wall but it is permissible to punish continued denials by looking away from the suspect and remaining silent until the suspect stops talking.

In a similar manner, there are certain interrogation statements relating to expressing the urgency to confess that are not permissible and others which are permissible. An example of an improper application of this technique occurred during the interrogation of a suspect who was accused of murdering his girlfriend's two-year-old child. In this case the investigator told the suspect that the interrogation represented his only chance to let the jury and court know the circumstances surrounding the death of the child. The court ruled the suspect's subsequent confession involuntary because the eNow or Never' interrogation technique represented an impermissible extrinsic falsehood (existing outside the realm of the police investigation) in that the suspect certainly could have later presented a defense in court explaining the circumstances of the child's death to a judge or jury.

There are other occasions where an investigator's expressed urgency for the suspect to confess may lead to a suppressed confession. For example, the investigator who tells the suspect that if he does not confess right now he will face an additional charge of obstruction of justice, or telling the suspect that if he confesses now he will be given a reduced sentence. There is nothing revolutionary in these examples, as threats and promises have always been prohibited during an interrogation. This is true whether the threat or promise is introduced in the interrogation by expressing the urgency to confess or through another tactic.

On the other hand, there is nothing inherently illegal about expressing an urgency for the suspect to tell the truth during an interrogation. However, the tactic cannot be tied to a promise of leniency or threat of physical harm or more severe consequences. In our opinion, the following statements are all legal ways to express an urgency for a suspect to tell the truth during an interrogation:

"Jim, I'm turning my report in at 5:00 this afternoon with or without your explanation. If you want your explanation included in my report this is your last chance to do it."

"Dan, it is human nature to believe whoever talks first. You know that eventually Bill is going to tell us what happened. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he tries to make this whole thing look like it was your idea and that he was an innocent bystander. It's your choice. Do you want people to believe your version of events or what Bill says?"

"Mary, you know as well as I do that eventually you're going to tell the truth about this. You may tell a parent or friend or someone else. The point is that eventually I'm going to learn the truth about this. I can learn it from someone else or I can hear it from you today. The choice is yours."

"Julie, don't kid yourself and think that if you say nothing this whole thing will somehow magically disappear and go away. If you leave here without getting this thing clarified you're going to allow people to think that you do this sort of thing all the time and that you can never be trusted again. If you want people to ever trust you again, you've got to tell the truth now."

"Mike, I don't want to get a call from you next week where you tell me that you've decided to tell me what happened. Next week I'll be working on another case. If you want to tell me the truth, you have to make that decision now."

In conclusion, guilty suspects are strongly motivated to put off the decision of telling the truth during an interrogation. To counter this tendency, it is a common interrogation tactic to stress the urgency to tell the truth now. When using this tactic (or any other interrogation tactic) the investigator cannot make false statements relating to legal issues such as possible charges, the length of sentence, what a judge or jury is likely to do or comment on possible legal defenses. Legally permissible statements that address the urgency of telling the truth can relate to logic, human nature or intrinsic facts about the investigation (turning in a report, being assigned another case.)


1 Commonwealth v. Novo, 442 Mass. 262, 812 N.E. 2d 1169 (May, 2004)

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