The Presence of a Third Person in the Interview Room

Written By: Reid
Mar 01, 2004

Ideally, an interview of a suspect, victim or witness should be conducted in a private setting. The most important element of privacy is communicating one on one with the person being interviewed. Common sense and experience clearly indicate that the presence of a third party during an interview or interrogation inhibits the truth-telling process, i.e., it is easier to relate sensitive information to one person than two people.

However, out of necessity or sometimes practicality, a third person may be present during the interview or interrogation. In some instances, the third person may be a fellow investigator who wants to be present during an interview or interrogation. When interviewing a minor, the third person may be a parent or juvenile advocate. In some situations, to guard against unwarranted claims of sexual misconduct, it may be advisable to have a female witness present when a male interviews a female suspect. In private industry cases an employee may request that a union representative or another employee be present during an interview. For the sake of simplicity, this third person will be referred to as an "observer."

Whoever the observer may be, the investigator needs to minimize the loss of privacy created by having a third person in the room. The first consideration in accomplishing this goal is to have the observer sit out of the subject's sight. The furniture within the interview room should, therefore, be arranged in such a way that the observer's chair is preferably behind, and to the side of, the subject's chair. If it is not possible to position the observer behind the subject, at the very least the observer's chair should be positioned off to the side of the subjects chair.

In addition to placing the observer out of the subject's sight, it is imperative that the observer be instructed to remain silent. In other words, the flow of communication should only be between the investigator and the subject. When the observer is a parent or union representative it is often beneficial for the investigator to sit down with the observer and carefully define what that person's role will be during the interview. A discussion similar to the following may me appropriate:

"I have no problems with you being present during my interview of (subject). However, I am going to ask that you sit in the chair on the other side of the desk. In addition, I must insist that you remain silent throughout my interview. For me to do my job I need to be able to speak with (subject) without any interruptions from you. If you have any problems with the questions I ask (subject) you are free to express your objections following the interview. However, if you do interrupt the interview by asking questions or making statements I may have to terminate the entire process and indicate in my report that I was unable to complete the interview because of your interruptions. Will you agree to allow me to do my job by withholding comment during my conversation with (subject)?"

In actuality, the investigator has no legal authority to require that a third party remain silent during the course of an interview or interrogation. However, it is clearly to the investigator's advantage to spend some time with the observer in an effort to persuade that person not to interfere with the interview or interrogation process.

If the observer is another investigator a decision should be made as to who will conduct the interview or interrogation. A situation that should be avoided is one in which two or more investigators are simultaneously questioning the subject. Under this circumstance the subject is likely to feel overwhelmed and threatened. A natural response to those feelings is for the suspect to become guarded and offer little information or perhaps totally retreat by either terminating the interview.

One possible advantage of having a second investigator in the room during an interview or interrogation is that the observer may be more attentive to observe behavior symptoms from the subject. These observations may suggest additional questions to ask during an interview or alternative tactics to use during an interrogation. The key is to maintain the principle that one person communicate with the subject at a time. Therefore, a procedure needs to be developed where a smooth transition can be made that allows the two investigators to switch roles.

During an interview, when the initial investigator asks his last question it would be appropriate to ask the observer (the other investigator) whether or not he or she has any questions to ask the suspect. If the observer responds affirmatively, the two investigators should then switch places within the room. That is, the initial investigator should now sit in the observer's chair and the initial observer sit in the investigator's chair. Once the new seating arrangement has been established, the second investigator is in a proper psychological position to develop further information from the subject. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate for the observer to ask questions from behind a desk or table.

The same principle applies during an interrogation; however the transition between the observer and initial interrogator may not be so obvious. When the observer recognizes that the initial investigator is not making progress during the interrogation it would be appropriate for the observer to get out of his seat and make a statement such as the following: "Jim, I've been sitting back here and listening to what you're saying. Something you've got to understand is that we would not be talking to you this way unless we knew, without a doubt, that you did this." This statement is a signal to the original investigator to get out of his chair and allow the other investigator to take over the interrogation.

The importance of privacy during an interview or interrogation in eliciting the truth has long been recognized. However, there are circumstances where privacy within the interview room must be compromised. When a third person is present during an interview or interrogation the investigator should attempt to minimize the psychological impact of that third person by positioning the third person out of the subject's sight and also instructing the third person to remain silent. When the observer is a second investigator, it is important that only one investigator at a time communicate with the suspect.

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