“You Have The Right To Remain Silent”

PrintPrintEmailEmail In the years that followed World War II, the methodology of police questioning had begun to soften. Perhaps the most unexpected catalyst for this shift was the Supreme Court of the United States. To appreciate fully the breadth and scope of the Court’s eventual decision in Miranda’s case, it is important to step back a couple of decades. In 1942 a Northwestern University law professor named Fred Inbau wrote a police manual about station-house interrogations that offered suggestions and recommended restrictions. Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation soon became the unofficial standard for police questioning. By the time the Inbau manual, as it is commonly known, reached its third edition in 1953, it had already reshaped interrogation practices.

The manual insisted that professionalized interrogation procedures would serve two essential functions: They would minimize abuses, and they would advance law enforcement’s credibility, by helping the interrogator obtain trustworthy and admissible confessions.

Officers were instructed to treat all suspects with respect and decency, but at the center of the manual is a distinction between the specific tactics to be employed when dealing with suspects whose guilt is only possible and when questioning those whose guilt is reasonably certain. In the first scenario, interrogators are specifically directed to ask deceptive questions. In the latter, they are advised to appeal to a suspect’s emotions: “sympathize with the suspect by saying anyone else under similar conditions or circumstances might have done the same thing”; “minimize the moral blameworthiness of the offense”; “suggest a more morally acceptable motivation … for the offense.”

The manual prefaces these instructions with advice on how to assert psychological dominance over suspects—by conducting the interrogation in private, for instance, and invading the suspect’s personal space, by ordering him to remain seated if he tries to stand, and by prohibiting him from smoking or fidgeting.

Given the manual’s prominence—even today—the primary issue for policymakers has been to determine if any of these practices encourage police abuse, and for the Supreme Court, the principal question becomes, Do they comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution?

Some 60 years before the Inbau manual was published, the Supreme Court first considered the effect of police conduct during an interrogation on the validity of the resulting confession. Just as Inbau would, the Court wrestled with the difficulty of balancing the needs of law enforcement with notions of fundamental fairness. After all, ruling a confession inadmissible may destroy the prosecution’s case, while admitting one that is the product of coercion runs the risk of encouraging untrustworthy confessions and unwarranted convictions.

The Court acknowledged that this conundrum was far from recent. In the sixteenth century, at the time of England’s infamous Star Chamber, the interrogator’s job was to obtain a confession by any means, without regard to its trustworthiness. Those who initially refused to confess were beaten and tortured. The Star Chamber was abolished in 1641, but not until the eighteenth century did English courts begin to adopt a “totality of the circumstances” test to determine whether a confession was voluntary. If the confession was found to be the product of coercion, it was deemed untrustworthy and therefore inadmissible.

The U.S. Supreme Court borrowed from the English precedent in adopting a form of this “voluntariness test,” holding that confessions were inadmissible “when made in response to threats, promises, or inducements” that may have overcome the suspect’s free will.

In Chambers v. Florida , a case decided in 1940, the Court excluded confessions resulting from the five-day interrogation of uneducated “young colored tenant farmers” because the method employed was “calculated to break the strongest nerves and the stoutest resistance.”

Carroll Cooley was one of the two detectives who interrogated Miranda.
courtesy of carroll cooley2006_4_53

In the following decade the Court considered cases involving deceptive interrogation tactics. In Spano v. New York (1959), an indicted suspect called a childhood friend, a police officer named Bruno, and said he wanted to hand himself over to the authorities. Before turning himself in, however, Spano sought the counsel of an attorney, who persuaded him not to answer any questions. The frustrated police officers had Bruno tell the defendant two lies: that his initial phone call had gotten Bruno in a lot of trouble and that his failure to confess had placed his old friend’s job in jeopardy.