The short answer? Absolutely. Yes. Police officers can and do lie to people during investigations.
This may come as a surprise to some movie and TV viewers. It’s a common trope in Hollywood that police officers can only lie if it’s absolutely necessary to maintain their cover in an undercover investigation. We’re led to believe police are forbidden from lying in other circumstances – or even that if asked if they are a police officer, they can’t lie.
They can, though. They can even lie to kids.
Why would they? There may be many reasons, but one is simple expedience. Lying to suspects works, if by “works” you mean “gets them to confess to crimes.”
For example, if the police think you’re guilty of something, they may lie to you and say they have independent evidence that you did it. They may say they have your fingerprints or even your DNA from the crime scene. They may say that someone has already ratted you out.
They may try to convince you that denying your involvement is futile because they already have enough evidence to convict you. They may tell you that confessing is the best way to help yourself, or the only way the officer can help you. A friendly officer may come in offering leniency. This could go on for hours and hours. In the end, you might be so tired, frustrated and half-disbelieving that confession seems like the only way to go home.
All of that would probably be legal. There are very few limits on what police can say during an interrogation.
Police falsehoods are problematic because they lead to false confessions
While the police generally can’t use force to coerce a confession, they are free to use deception and other psychological techniques in interrogations, even when they are interrogating a juvenile.
Unfortunately, while police deception gets people to confess, it is at the risk of false confessions. Consider the Innocence Project, a legal defense initiative that attempts to free innocent people from prison. The group has recorded 375 exonerations where DNA conclusively found the person who was convicted was actually innocent. In 29% of those wrongful convictions, the person had confessed.
Minors are especially vulnerable to the kind of psychological pressure that causes false confessions. That’s because their brains are not fully developed. The parts responsible for appreciating consequences, making plans and rational decision-making are not fully developed until the mid-20s. Instead, juveniles rely on the limbic system to make their decisions, which emphasizes emotion.
Illinois and Oregon recently passed laws forbidding police from lying to juveniles during interrogation. New York is considering forbidding deception in interrogations altogether. Should North Carolina?