In State v. Collins, the SC Court of Appeals suppressed an involuntary statement by the defendant and reversed his convictions for 1st degree arson and conspiracy.
Ordinarily, we think of an involuntary statement as one that is obtained by threats and coercion. In this case, although there were threats by law enforcement, the decision seemed to hinge on the police lying to their suspect during interrogation.
Well, not just lying – it’s totally okay with the courts when police lie and deceive a suspect. They lied about the defendant’s constitutional rights…
It is extremely rare for the appellate courts to reverse a conviction based on police misconduct, including coerced confessions (involuntary statements), threats, and lies by police. What’s different about this case? Can we draw a “bright line” here and say that, if police lie to a suspect about their constitutional rights, any statements made in response are “coerced” and involuntary?
What is an Involuntary Statement?
If a statement is coerced, it is an “involuntary statement” and a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The court considers “the totality of the circumstances” to decide whether a statement was involuntary – to decide whether the suspect’s “will was overborne” – including:
- The characteristics of the accused (their education level, mental state, and ability to understand the questions),
- The details of the interrogation,
- Whether food, water, or bathroom was denied to the suspect,
- How many officers were present,
- The location of the interrogation,
- The length of the interrogation, and
- Whether any threats were made.
The question is “whether the behavior of the State’s law enforcement officials was such as to overbear [the defendant’s] will to resist and bring about confessions not freely self-determined—a question to be answered with complete disregard of whether or not [the defendant] in fact spoke the truth.”
Why was the Statement Involuntary?
The Court of Appeals identified a number of factors that led them to decide that Collins’ statements were involuntary, including:
- He testified he did not understand his Miranda rights,
- He completed 7th or 8th grade and attended special education classes, and
- He had recently suffered a stroke and had difficulty remembering things.
The police told Collins that:
- They only wanted information to go after his codefendant,
- They were there to help him,
- They would talk to the prosecutor on his behalf,
- He was going home after the interview no matter what he told them,
- If he didn’t talk, he was going to prison and he would probably die there, and
- They would keep his statements confidential.
Despite his impaired mental state, the clear threats from law enforcement, and the promises that they would help him, the Court of Appeals seemed most concerned with law enforcement’s promise to keep his statement confidential:
Well, you’re not going to say the wrong thing. Whatever you tell me, it ain’t gonna leave this room. This, um, tape is going into my file. And I’m gonna, I’m gonna burn a copy for him … and it ain’t gonna go any further than this room. That’s why we got the door shut, the blinds pulled, there’s no sound device in here. I want you to be honest with me and tell me what you think.
Because it’s exactly the opposite of the Miranda rights that they had just read to him (and that he testified he did not understand). “Anything you say can and will be used against you” turned into “Anything you say we’ll keep it confidential, and it won’t be used against you.”
It’s Still Okay for Police to Lie to You
Don’t get the wrong impression – it’s definitely still okay for the police to lie to you. But maybe not about your constitutional rights…
But It’s Not Okay for Police to Lie to You About Your Constitutional Rights
The Court of Appeals focused on law enforcement’s lie that contradicted the Miranda rights they had read to him:
…we believe that if a defendant receives Miranda warnings and it is thereafter conveyed to him during the interview that his statement, whether in whole or in part, would not be used against him and/or is being obtained for some other purpose, such may render the statement inadmissible…
What’s the difference between lying about the evidence in a case or lying about whether you will go to jail if you confess, and lying about your Miranda rights?
The Court of Appeals makes a distinction between “false representations,” which are okay with the court, and “false promises” or threats, which are not okay with the court:
Assuredly, interrogating officers can make false representations concerning the crime or the investigation during questioning without always rendering an ensuing confession coerced. But false promises stand on a different footing…
…though interrogating officers may sometimes make false representations concerning the facts surrounding the crime without rendering an ensuing confession coerced, they cannot make false promises, whether direct or implied, that induce a confession from the individual…
A statement may not be ‘extracted by any sort of threats or violence, [or] obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, [or] obtained by the exertion of improper influence.’” (alterations in original) (quoting Rochester, 301 S.C. at 200, 391 S.E.2d at 246)); Preston, 751 F.3d at 1026 (“[I]nterrogating officers can make false representations concerning the crime or the investigation during questioning without always rendering an ensuing confession coerced[, b]ut false promises stand on a different footing.”
The reasoning doesn’t really make sense to criminal defense attorneys who know that:
- Police falsely promise leniency to suspects all the time and it does not make a statement involuntary, and
- Police threaten suspects all the time and it does not make a statement involuntary (the officers’ threat that Collins would die in prison if he didn’t talk probably would not have resulted in a reversal alone).
What was different here was a false promise that was also a lie about Collins’ right to remain silent (and that, if he spoke, anything he said could and would be used against him). That, combined with the other threats, false promises, and Collins’ mental state, made his statement involuntary “under the totality of the circumstances.”
Would his statement have been involuntary but for the lie about Collins’ Miranda rights? Should the court be saying more clearly that:
- The lie about Collins’ right to remain silent and whether his statement would be used against him is, alone, grounds for reversal, and
- The other circumstances, including the false promises, threats, and his mental state, rendered his statement involuntary?
Stay tuned – we may get a SC Supreme Court opinion in this case either affirming the Court of Appeals’ reasoning or reversing them…
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