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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > June 2013 > United States v. Siler, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, May 15, 2013

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United States v. Siler, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, May 15, 2013

Question: Can an officer use false threats or promises of leniency to secure a confession from a suspect?
Quick Answer: No. The Sixth Circuit said the interrogation in this case “presents a stark example of police impropriety and deplorable interrogation techniques.” This is a good read on how not to get a confession.

Facts: Jeffery Siler was arrested by the Knoxville Police Department on a probation violation, but he was interviewed by an investigator regarding two burglaries. In the first interview, the investigator Mirandized Siler and then asked him about a handgun that had been stolen from one of the houses. During the course of the interview, the investigator told Siler:
  • He had clout with the prosecutor, suggesting that the prosecutor would go along with him.
  • He could not promise Siler anything, but he was “the one who typed the warrants” and therefore he was instrumental in deciding whether Siler got charged or went to rehab.
  • He could not put an agreement in writing unless he first charged Siler.
There was a short break, and when the investigator returned, Siler asked what would happen if he could locate the gun. The investigator said he would speak with Siler’s probation officer. In addition, he brought in a stack of papers that allegedly noted 30 different investigations involving Siler, and when asked if those would go away, the investigator said, “There you go.” He again indicated that he typed the warrants, and Siler wouldn’t be charged. When asked who would be charged with the gun crime, the investigator said, “Nobody.” 
Ten days later, a second interview occurred at Siler’s request, but only after Siler and his wife repeatedly tried to contact the investigator. At the interview, Siler was read his Miranda rights but asked questions about whether he was incriminating himself. The investigator again said the district attorney would work with him. Siler confessed and later was indicted on federal gun charges.
Why this case is important: Officers have some latitude in using deception to secure a confession. For example, it’s common to overstate the strength of your evidence; but you cannot coerce a confession. The courts are particularly leery when an officer makes promises or threats that are vague or untrue. In other words, if you get a confession through promises that you know are not true (or that you later break), you are increasing the chances that a court will suppress the confession.
The court in this case looked at the totality of the circumstances regarding the confession and found that the investigator’s actions were “deplorable.” He lied or misrepresented his influence over the process. He repeatedly promised that no one would be charged if Siler confessed, a promise that he either had no ability to make or that he willfully broke later. The court found that the investigator’s repeated coercive tactics overwhelmed Siler’s ability to truly consent to confess.
Keep in mind: Interrogations can be tricky to navigate. There is a fine line between the kinds of appropriate nudging that leads to a confession versus inappropriate coercion that violates the Constitution. This case is a good, short read for anyone who wants to see an example unconstitutional coercion.
Visit the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.