While police officers can lie to suspects of crimes and get away with it in every state, that’s no longer the case in Illinois—at least when it comes to juveniles.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) is scheduled to sign pioneering legislation (S.B. 2122) today that makes Illinois the first state to prohibit any oral, written, or sign-language statement made by someone 17 years old or younger to be admissible as evidence in criminal or juvenile legal proceedings if law enforcement officials intentionally deceived the suspect to get the statement.
Police use the tactic because it works, compelling people to make confessions that later prove to be false, said Oregon state Sen. Chris Gorsek (D), sponsor of a similar bill on his governor’s desk. Younger people are particularly susceptible to the practice because of a propensity to favor short-term gains, such as ending an interrogation, over longer-term consequences, or a desire to please authority figures, advocates of the legislation said. Younger people also might not consider the totality of the actions because their brains aren’t fully developed, they said.
“We know from our research that kids are between two and three times as likely to confess to a crime they didn’t commit because they are more vulnerable in interrogation rooms, more susceptible to pressure,” Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, said in an interview. Police primarily use deception to make false promises of leniency and make false claims about the existence of incriminating evidence in order to obtain confessions, she said.
Several factors may lead to coerced confessions, including mental limitations and the length of interrogation, Rebecca Brown, director of policy at New York-based Innocence Project, said in an interview. “That said, deception is known to be a huge factor on contributing to the conditions that will elicit a coerced confession,” she said. “There are other ways to solve crime and elicit confessions.”
Despite enactment of the Illinois legislation, it’s still legal in the state—and everywhere else in the U.S.—for police to deceive suspects 18 or older during interrogations. Legislators in several states are pushing to ban the ability of police to lie to any suspect, regardless of age.
‘Astonishingly High Rate’
The National Registry of Exonerations reported that since 1989 at least 342 false confessions were given to police, and in at least 89 of those instances researchers could verify police were lying about aspects of investigations to eventual exonerees.
“There are many, many factors that go into false confessions, but lying was one of a very few that we were able to isolate as a major contributing factor,” said Klara Stephens, a research scholar at the registry before becoming in 2020 a Cook County, Ill., assistant public defender.
Of those 89 cases, law enforcement personnel lied to suspects in Illinois in at least 24 instances, the largest number of episodes where police lied to suspects in any state, according to registry data. By comparison, New York had 12 instances during the period where police lied and obtained a false confession. Virginia had five instances of lying, while Texas and Michigan each had four instances during which police lied during an interrogation and obtained a false confession, the data said.
“Deception is a prevalent, common interrogation tactic that police are trained to use across the country,” Nirider said. “It happens at an astonishingly high rate,” she said. “There are hundreds of proven false confession cases around the country, real cases in which people are brought into the interrogation room, questioned by police using tactics that are legal, and end up confessing to often serious crimes—rapes and murders—that forensic evidence proves later they didn’t commit.”
The Illinois law defines deception as the knowing communication of false facts about evidence or unauthorized statements regarding leniency by a law enforcement officer or juvenile officer. The prohibition may be overcome by a preponderance of evidence the confession was voluntarily given based on the totality of the circumstances.
Illinois isn’t alone in considering outlawing the practice. Oregon state Sen. Gorsek, a former Portland police officer, introduced legislation (S.B. 418) that labels statements by suspects 17 and younger involuntary and thus inadmissible in court if law enforcement knowingly used false information to elicit the statements. The bill passed the state Senate in May and Gorsek’s chamber in June. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) has a history of supporting progressive legislation and will likely sign the bill into law, Gorsek said during an interview. Brown’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
New York state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D) introduced legislation (S. 324) that would be more expansive, banning police use of deception in custodial interrogations involving suspects of any age. But that bill wasn’t approved by either of New York’s legislative chambers before they adjourned for the year on June 10.
Gorsek said while he wants to prohibit police from using deception during all custodial interrogations, he took an incremental approach to the issue to enhance chances of its enactment. Others agreed. “When we approach lawmakers with this issue, many times they say, ‘We agree this is a problem plaguing the entire system. But for this to be politically viable we want to begin with young people, and then we’ll work over time to expand it,’ ” Brown, of the Innocence Project, said.