By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Yes, the police can lie to you during an investigation.
Deception is a legitimate tool of law enforcement. If you don’t believe me, watch any mafia or gang movie where the police plant someone to infiltrate the group. I’d call someone with a fake identity who pretends to be someone else a touch on the dishonest side, would’t you?
Let’s be honest – often the ends justify the means. We all want killers, child molesters, or thieves to be caught and a bit of trickeration is typically tolerable to a point for all of us depending on what the police are digging into.
A key assumption I am making here is the officer or detective’s mind is made up about the case before they attempt to speak to the accused. Just know this obviously isn’t always the case. There are many times an officer legitimately isn’t trying to manipulate someone into giving them information and they really are just trying to understand what really happened in a given case. Then again, the whole reason for this blog today is we’re never 100% that we know the difference.
Lawyers cannot lie ethically whether in court or not. I’m not aware of any similar ethical requirement of police or law enforcement. They cannot commit perjury, obviously — but when they deal with a citizen under investigation they are not under oath.
How Common is it for Police to Lie During an Investigation?
Very common. And to be fair to police, lies come in all different shapes and forms and rarely are they complete fabrications like infiltrating the mob. Some can be exaggerations, lying by not telling a suspect the complete truth about what the police know, or telling a suspect half-truths to try and get them to open up and confess.
Everyday Examples of Police Techniques
During a DWI arrest – the officer may say something like “I’d like to have you do some tests to see if you’re okay to drive.” It’s pretty disingenuous when the cop has already called the tow-truck to have the person arrested. In this instance the officer is leaving the false impression the person can somehow avoid the arrest if they perform well enough or are cooperative. But police are trained to get all the evidence of the intoxication on video tape – and this is exactly what they are doing in this example.
During a Sexual Assault Investigation – a detective might often pretend to know facts they don’t. Or a detective might do the opposite – pretend not to know anything but in reality know many of the answers to the questions being asked. Like the Driving While Intoxication situation – the officer may give the false impression the suspect can talk their way out of an arrest when in reality the detective has already secured an arrest warrant.
Bluffing or “Hot Boxing”– Police bluff and threaten certain consequences they can’t follow through on knowing they are dealing with someone who doesn’t know the difference. Another term I call “hot boxing” is where an officer puts on a high-pressure push to get a person to comply with an interview or make statements.
Vagueness as a Weapon – An extremely common thing I see is a police officer or detective simply being vague with a suspect. “If you don’t tell me your side of the story, I can’t help you” or “I just want to hear your side the story.” As you can see there are no real promises here and it implies no decisions have been made. But that’s not always true.
There is No Substitute for Experience and “Feel”
The fact is if you’re facing a situation where the police want to question you – and you’re concerned they’re being less than 100% honest with you then you really need a lawyer in your corner.
Police have a much more difficult time manipulating or/ working an experienced lawyer – and most don’t even try. But one thing an experienced lawyer can have with an investigating law enforcement agent is an honest conversation. And that’s a good thing.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.