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Criminal Justice: Coerced Confessions

Professionals drawn into sectors related to criminal justice encounter several ethical problems. Ethical codes assist in identifying and illustrating principled behavior in any profession, including the criminal justice occupation is wanting. Law enforcers, like any other human, formulate decisions that are scrutinized under ethical standards by a third party (Vermeule &Posner, 2006). Police are part of an extensive system of criminal justice that encompasses the bench, lawyers, and other law enforcers. Public trust is of the essence in any organization dealing with criminal justice; whether the dealings of a law enforcer are principled or unprincipled can be analyzed by the justice process. Legislators describe whether an action is precise or erroneous and the enormity of punishment that will be administered.

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There are many actors in the criminal justice structure who handle vital information used as substantiation. At times this information is not readily obtainable and police have a daunting task in getting it. This calls for decisive inquiry and questioning which is at times done in an unethical manner. There exists a slender line between coercive and non-coercive interrogations. A law enforcer who is acting in good faith may accidentally cross the line and bully a subject into giving information. The ban on coercive interrogations, therefore, becomes difficult to enforce or police. It may still be practiced unintentionally without any ill motive.

Police interrogations are the chief reasons for the unlawful sentence of many citizens. Psychological and physical tactics are used by police in their interrogations to persuasively pressurize a subject to confess to a crime that the subject may not even know about. Many strategies are used in persuasive coercion of purportedly guilty people. While it may draw out a confession from a guilty suspect, there are various instances when blameless suspects are forced to confess to a crime they did not commit.

Coercive questioning usually involves the use of mental or physical force to extract information in case the life of a third party is at stake. It ranges from gentle to brutal and may in extreme cases involve torture which is illegal according to the law (Vermeule &Posner, 2006). However, not all forms of torture are classified as coercive interrogation. For example, torture can be used for oppression or intimidation of others. It is only obligatory to administer it when the lives of a third party are at risk.

Coercive interrogation, also referred to as brainwashing, results in the violation of privileges associated with human dignity. The use of ethical interpretation is therefore imperative. There are times in life when ‘necessary evil’ is acceptable; it may be necessary to kill a guiltless person in order to save a country. Many people hold the view that coercive interrogations do not work for two basic reasons. One, it is commonly believed that appalling practices cannot be successful. Two, a picture of ruthless beating is conjured in the back of the public’s minds whenever the term interrogation arises. Professionalism and the training of officials can increase the advantages of coercive interrogations. A law enforcer is therefore empowered in obtaining valuable information while lessening the harm caused to those who are being questioned.

Coercion is permissible in severe threats like fighting terrorism but regrettably, it is also used to extract information from minor criminals and inflict pain on subjects reprehended for soft offenses. If authorized, blameless bystanders who may be seen as withholding information of a crime they witnessed may be coercively interrogated. This results in the infringement of the rights of people and violability of the human body.

Prohibiting coercive judgment will give citizens lessons in human dignity and the importance of upholding human rights (Vermeule & Posner 2006). Israel security has forced information out of witnesses even though the country has prohibited it. Officials who use this measure are protected by the necessity defense that is twisted to their favor. Entities criticizing coercive cross-examination view the necessity defense as a better substitute. However, reliance on the necessity defense will not help in legitimizing coercive cross-examination unless it is proven to be crucial.

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Demotion or promotion in the police force makes the police output in their work. Lazy officers may end up being demoted hence a need to work extra hard. Working hard may mean nabbing more criminals for some law enforcers. Almost every triumphant interrogation involves some sort of trickery (Kassin & McNall, 1991). Police may choose to interrogate more suspects coercively in order to find them guilty even if the evidence is questionable, and hence, get promoted or receive an increase in pay. The conviction of an innocent individual because of a false admission is indeed very unfortunate.

If acknowledged, there must be restrictions set on how far the interrogation can go. Mild methods of grilling can be permitted, but a problem arises with how mild a method can be. Videotaping an interrogation for future review by administrative authorities can be an efficient way of moderating the practice (Vermeule & Posner 2006). There can be particularly special groups of people to whom coercive interrogation can be administered, for example, terrorists. Ordinary citizens in particular those who have no previous criminal record can be excluded from such a practice.

In a court of law, evidence provided through confession proves to be the most central weapon in a prosecution. Judges and the jury have to accurately examine this evidence and attempt to make out whether it has been coerced or deliberate. Traditionally, judges have had to rule on cases based on the voluntariness of confession evidence. In case an individual is coerced into giving a confession that seems to exactly fit in a case in question, it becomes difficult for the judge and jury to determine whether it is an admissible confession or has been spoon-fed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for a confession to be admitted into evidence it should be ensured that it is not extracted through aggression or obtained by any promises for the subject (Kassin & McNall, 1991).

The judge is in charge of protecting a subject from being forced to answer questions that are based on false premises or unfair cross-examination. Even though there are many manuals existing to guide law enforcers on methods of getting information from suspects, police still coerce accused suspects using several methods. Some of them include feigning companionship, employing informants, production of doctored data, and maximization and minimization of the degree of a crime (Posner & Vermuele, 2006).

Maximization is a crude method used by an interrogator to exaggerate the strengths of evidence and the magnitude of the charges. Scare tactics are used to exert pressure on the suspect and make the offense look serious. A crime may be made to appear much complex and the subject may be forced to give information in order to make it look less grave.

Minimization is a technique in which an interrogator makes a crime appear petite and less severe. Theme development helps to reduce the ethical implications of an alleged offense. The crime is made to look morally acceptable and the interrogator suggests that he/she would have done the same thing if in the suspect’s shoes. An accidental offense like a hit-and-run accident always leaves a person with a pang of guilt (Magid, 2001). The examiner may make the subject believe it was not a deliberate thing nor was it the subject’s fault. The subject can be made to feel guilty and therefore there is no reason to carry on denying the charges.

Two other balancing methods are the explicit threat and explicit promise situation. The subject can be promised a lighter judgment and clemency in punishment if cooperation is given by the provision of information. A severe sentence is threatened if support is not given to the interrogator. The present research shows that intimidation of a subject is a more effective mechanism than promises for better treatment if convicted.

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The interrogators at the police station determine which questions they will raise. They may use various forms of deception to coerce a suspect into giving coerced information. Playing one suspect against another is one of these refined tactics. For example, a subject can be informed that a co-conspirator has already confessed to a crime, or is being tricked that he/she has been implicated. This may make the suspect feel cornered while assuming that the interrogators are informed, and hence admit to an offense.

Secret interrogation by police is morally against the law. The rights of the suspect of being swiftly taken before a commissioner are dishonored and the time taken before trial is delayed in order to make inquiries. This happens at a time when the impact of a lawyer’s counsel can prove to be significant and useful. The public and the courts seem to accept the belief that secret questioning is needed to successfully enforce the law (Magid, 2001).

The good cop versus bad cop tactic also throws many subjects off balance. While one cop will ask tough and incriminating questions the other will be more courteous and friendlier. A subject may be tempted to answer questions from the friendly cop, in order to show defiance to the more aggressive cop and hence give information.

There is a huge difference between something being legal and it is right. The decision on whether to coercively extract information from a subject mainly rests in the police who engage in the questioning. The technique has proved effective in nabbing guilty individuals but it may at times cause wrongful imprisonment of innocent people. Proper laws should be set and enforced on how far it can go.


Kassin, S. & McNall, K. (1991). Police Interrogations and Confessions: Communicating Promises and Threats by Pragmatic Implication. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 15, No. 3

Magid, L. (2001). Deceptive Police Interrogation Practices: How Far Is Too Far? Michigan Law Review, Vol. 99, No. 5

Posner, E & Vermuele, A. (2006). Should Coercive Interrogation Be Legal? Michigan Law Review. Web.

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