How much can police lie to suspects? N.Y. rulings suggest there's a limit.

Two decisions from New York State’s highest court on Thursday dealt with cases in which the suspect was led to believe that someone else's life hinged on his or her confession.

Two decisions from New York State’s highest court on Thursday suggest that there is a limit, if still a vague one, on how much police can deceive suspects during interrogations – including lying to a suspect that someone else’s life hinges on his or her confession.

In a unanimous ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals tossed out the 2009 conviction of Adrian Thomas for the murder of his infant son, finding that Troy, N.Y., police had overstepped their prerogative to use artifice when they told Mr. Thomas that his son, who was brain-dead, was alive and could be saved with his confession, among numerous other falsehoods.

Thomas confessed to slamming the baby against a mattress before the child was taken to the hospital with brain injuries. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In the ruling, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called the numerous ruses in the interrogation “highly coercive deceptions.” He singled out the ruse to stake the child’s life on Thomas’s confession as one likely to “prompt any ordinarily caring parent to provide whatever information they thought might be helpful, even if it was incriminating.”

In another decision on Thursday, the court also upheld a lower court’s ruling to overturn the conviction of Paul Aveni for criminally negligent homicide in his girlfriend’s heroin overdose death. The court agreed with the earlier ruling that police had coerced Mr. Aveni into confessing, telling him that his girlfriend was still alive, but could die if he did not tell them what drugs he had given her, so that she could receive proper treatment.

The two rulings come amid mounting national sensitivity to the fact that wrongful convictions are more common than once thought and that interrogation practices designed to draw out confessions might not always produce true ones.  

“There’s a perception that people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit,” says Laurie Shanks, clinical professor of law at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y. “But the science is that absolutely they do.”

Bluffing is a common – and legal – tool in police interrogation rooms, and the art of artifice in obtaining confessions is a standard part of police training. The parameters for what police can lie about are broad, and lies can range from claiming to have evidence that does not exist to fibbing that a witness was at the scene.

Still, per US Supreme Court rulings, confessions must also be “voluntary,” introducing a possible point of contention between an officer’s right to lie to a suspect and his or her obligation to serve justice.

“The question is, at what point does the amount of lying make the confession involuntary?” Professor Shanks says. “There’s just no bright line on it.”

The Court of Appeals’ ruling on Thomas’s case did not set any firm new rules on deception during interrogation. But the powerful court’s stance on the issue could yet have significant bearing on what amount of guile lower courts will tolerate in confessions brought before them, as well as potentially encouraging revisions of police practices, legal analysts say.

“The court did not set any hard and fast rules, but it did issue some clear warnings that these tactics will be scrutinized closely in future,” says Steven Drizin, clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

“There’s been too much deference given to police officers,” he says. “They’re accustomed to having free rein with suspects behind interrogation doors.”

The case at issue dates back to September 2008, when, in two interrogation sessions over nine hours, Troy police told Thomas that his 4-month-old child, Matthew, was alive, but medical professionals would not know how to save him until he told police what had happened.

“Do you want to save your baby’s life?” asked one officer, according to a transcript. When Thomas said he did, the officer countered with:

“Are you sure about that? Because you don’t seem like you want to save your baby’s life right now.”

Police also assured Thomas – 67 times – that they believed the baby’s injuries were an accident and that he could go home if he told them what happened. They told him that they would “scoop up” his wife if he did not confess. And they, not Thomas, supplied all the details in his eventual confession, according to the court decision.

In his decision, Chief Judge Lippman wrote that, from the onset, the “interrogation had as its object obtaining a statement that would confirm the hypothesis that the infant had been murdered through physical abuse.”

Thomas’s case is now heading back to a lower court, where his confession will be suppressed.

Arthur Glass, acting district attorney in Rensselaer County, where Thomas was prosecuted, said that he “was disappointed” with the ruling and planned to pursue the case.

“It was typical police procedure,” he says of the Troy police. “They were following the rules as they existed at that time.”

"They were certainly deceitful," he says, but “they used deceit when necessary."

The case also appeared to spotlight the issue of whether interrogations should be videotaped. New York State is not among the some 20 states that require police to tape interrogations, but the Troy Police Department has videotaped them since about 2008, according to Mr. Glass.

In the Thomas case, that meant the court had a full chronicle of how the confession was made.

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