Documenting Field Confessions

Written By: Reid
Jul 01, 2010

Documenting Field Confessions[i]

Following a successful interrogation the investigator will convert the oral confession to a court admissible document. This document may be handwritten by the suspect, a formal statement which the suspect signs or an electronically recorded confession. Regardless of its final form, a suspect's confession will be the strongest piece of evidence presented in a court of law and may be used to establish probable cause to obtain arrest or search warrants which may result in further evidence or resolve other cases; in short, a suspect's confession is often the lynch-pin to a successful prosecution.

Not all confessions are obtained in an interrogation room. On a regular basis suspects make incriminating statements, or full confessions, in the field through the interviewing process. These "field confessions" can have the same legal impact as confessions obtained at the station house if they are properly documented. Unfortunately, however, an officer's written report often contains sketchy or ambiguous details of the suspect's confession, i.e., "The subject acknowledged doing it"; "The subject acknowledged his guilt." These types of statements have little or no value in court. Furthermore, because of the lack of specific details, the subject is likely to later maintain his innocence and there is no corroboration to refute his position.

Most field confessions are not formally documented but rather, the officer will include the incriminating information within a written report. The documentation of a field confession does not have to be extensive, but must satisfy four minimal requirements to be useful as evidence:

1. Document whether the suspect was in custody at the time of the statement. If the suspect was not in custody at the time incriminating statements were made, Miranda warnings are not required. If the suspect was in custody at the time of the questioning, the report should indicate that he was advised of his Miranda rights and did not invoke those rights.

2. The statement must accurately cover the legal elements of the crime. In a rape case, for example, it is not sufficient for the statement to indicate that the suspect had sexual intercourse with the victim - it must indicate that force was used. In an arson investigation, it is not sufficient to state that the suspect is responsible for the fire, but rather that the suspect intentionally started the fire. In a robbery, the suspect did not take a purse from the victim; he stole the purse by grabbing it from the victim. When a 17 yr-old who sexually assaulted an 8 yr-old stated that "he put 'it' in 'there' for just a few minutes" his language is not sufficient. Although we understand what he is referring to this language should specifically state what "it' is and where "there" is.

3. The statement must identify basic facts about the crime. This would include such information as the date and time the crime was committed as well as the address and physical location of the crime. The statement must also indicate what the suspect did (strike a person, fire a gun, sell marijuana, etc.). To help establish the trustworthiness of the confession, it should describe basically how the crime was committed (entering through an unlocked door, pointing a gun at the clerk, striking the pedestrian with the left front side of his car, etc.) and why it was committed (peer pressure, need to buy drugs, driving without a license, etc.)

4. The confession must be voluntary. For a confession to be used as evidence in a court of law it must first be obtained without promising the suspect leniency in exchange for the confession (reduced charges, decreased sentence, favorable treatment by prosecutor, etc.). Second, the confession must be obtained without threatening the suspect in any way (threats of physical harm, deprivation of biological needs, threats to place children in foster care, etc.).

Once an incriminating admission or full confession is obtained in the field, it may be beneficial for the officer to fill out a standard form to help document the subject's statement. The following form could be considered for this purpose:

Date: 7/12/2010 Time: 7:45 pm

Miranda given Y N Invoked Y N

Who: James Smith Address: 210 Grape Ave. #34, Chicago, IL

What: Stole a motorcycle and rode it around Stokie for about 30 minutes.

When: July 12, 2010 at about 3:30 pm

Where: Red house on Madison and Broadway in Deer Park. Bike stolen from driveway to the south of home.

How: The keys were in the ignition and subject started motorcycle with the keys.

Why: To sell in Indiana or Wisconsin. Subject thought he might get $5,000 for it. Subject's unemployment compensation running out and needed money for rent and food.

Suspect's condition (physical, emotional and/ or psychological state of the suspect) The suspect appeared alert, there was no indication of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol and he was lucent and conversational throughout.

The use of such a form will help guide the questioning of the subject and also serve as the basis for details included in the officer's written report. The primary goals are to (1) lock the subject into his incriminating statement so that he will not recant and (2) establish sufficient basis for probable cause to apply for arrest or search warrants.

In smaller agencies where patrol officers follow cases from beginning to end, the officer may want to obtain a more formal confession from the suspect. An efficient technique to document the confession is for the officer to write out the confession which is then signed by the suspect and witnessed. The confession may be handwritten or typed out. Even though it is written by the officer, it should be written in first person past tense. This will make it clear to a jury, when read in court, that it is the defendant's confession. This statement should be witnesses by the officer who obtained it and ideally a second person, e.g., a partner. The following is an example of such a statement in the previous case:

July 12, 2010 7:30 pm

My name is James Smith. I live at 210 Grape Ave. #34 in Chicago, IL. I have been advised of my right to remain silent and right to an attorney but I want to make this statement. On July 12th, 2010 at approximately 3:30 pm I stole a motorcycle from a driveway at a home on Madison St. in Deer Park, IL. The keys were in the motorcycle and I just rode it away. I rode it around Skokie for about a half hour and parked it behind my apartment building at 210 Grape Ave. I was going to sell the motorcycle, maybe in Indiana or Wisconsin and thought that I might be able to get $5,000 for it. The reason I needed money is because my unemployment compensation ends this month and I need money for rent and food. This is the only time I have stolen a motorcycle.

Everything in this statement is true. No threats or promises were made to me to make this statement.

Jim Smith July 12, 2010 7:40 pm

Witness: Brian Jayne

Witness: Mike Masokas

In conclusion, suspects often make incriminating statements or full confessions during field interviews. While these remarks or disclosures can be invaluable as evidence during a trial, this is only true if the field statements are properly documented. This article identified four minimal requirements to document a statement before it can be used as evidence in a court of law.

[i] We would like to thank Sgt. James Anderson from the Santa Clarita Valley, CA Sheriff's department for suggesting this topic as a web tip.

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman