Question: Is a suspect’s confession involuntary when a peace officer questioning the suspect asks if he’d like to write an apology letter to the victim?
Quick answer: It depends on the totality of the circumstances.
Facts: Defendant Robert Miklas was suspected of raping his minor stepdaughter. Miklas agreed to meet law enforcement officers to take a polygraph about inappropriate sexual touching of the girl. An agent read Miklas his Miranda rights, and Miklas signed a written waiver. Then the agent began a pre-polygraph interview with Miklas. The agent asked Miklas about the sexual touching, and Miklas admitted that he had touched his stepdaughter’s genitals. Based on that statement, the agent asked Miklas if he wanted to write “a letter of apology” to his stepdaughter. Miklas replied yes. After Miklas wrote the letter, the agent asked him to clarify a few ambiguous statements in the letter, such as, “I’m sorry for what I did to you.” Miklas also wrote that he was sorry for touching his stepdaughter, so the agent asked him to clarify that statement as well. When Miklas clarified that he had digitally penetrated his stepdaughter, the agent ended the interview. Because of Miklas’ statements, the agent did not conduct a polygraph test.
Miklas later was charged with rape, and he filed a motion to suppress his confession because he argued that the agent’s request for a “letter of apology” constituted coercive police tactics used to obtain an involuntary confession.
Why this case is important: The court found that Miklas’ confession was voluntary. An involuntary statement involves a defendant’s will being overcome by coercive police conduct. Requesting “letters of apology” is questionable, but a court still will consider the totality of the circumstances to decide if the confession was voluntary. This includes the age, mentality, and prior criminal experience of the suspect; the length, intensity, and frequency of the interrogation; the existence of physical deprivation or mistreatment; and the existence of threat or inducement.
Here, although the agent admitted that the purpose of the “Voluntary Letter of Apology” form was to obtain a confession, Miklas’ will was never overcome during the interview. At the time, Miklas was a 40-year-old high school graduate with some college education; there were no allegations of physical deprivation or mistreatment by law enforcement; there was no evidence that the interview was too lengthy; Miklas voluntarily drove himself to the police station for the interview; Miklas admitted that he knew he was not under arrest and probably could have called to cancel the interview; the agent advised Miklas of his Miranda rights and told him that he could leave at any time; and Miklas signed the waiver form before the interview began. For these reasons, the court held that Miklas’ confession was voluntarily given through the letter of apology.
Keep in mind: A court will consider the totality of the circumstances before deciding if a confession is voluntary. However, using a “Voluntary Letter of Apology” has been found as a form of inducement by law enforcement. Therefore, consider what type of suspect you are dealing with before using that form. For example, if you have a suspect who may have a low-level education and who’s never had previous experience with law enforcement, using the “apology” form may be coercive, and any confession that comes from the letter probably would be suppressed. To be sure, consult with your department’s legal counsel.
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