According to the rules of popular culture, a cop has to answer honestly when faced with the hard-hitting question of “Are you a cop?” Tragically, this is not true. Police officers are legally allowed to lie. In fact, they’re allowed to lie a lot.
If you’re being questioned by the police, they can and will say most anything in their attempts to get you to confess to a crime or offer up any kind of incriminating information. In theory, there are limits to the lies that police can tell, but what does that mean for you as a citizen? If you’re being questioned and are uncertain about whether or not the cops are lying to you, what’s your best strategy in the moment?
I spoke with Jack Litwak, a criminal defence attorney in Phoenix, about how the police can legally lie to you and, more importantly, what you should do in those scenarios.
How (and why) the police lie
So you’ve been arrested and are in police custody. First things first: You have the right to remain silent. You know this. While it might not happen exactly like it does on TV, a police officer or other official must, by law, read your Miranda warning about your Fifth Amendment rights before they interrogate you. Here’s a quick recap of those rights:
- You have the right to remain silent
- Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
- You have the right to an attorney
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you
Simply put, the Fifth Amendment protects you from accidentally spilling self-incriminating statements. From here, police officers can get crafty to try and extract information out of you.
For instance, Litwack explains that in order to manipulate you into speaking, police officers are trained on interrogation methods like the Reid technique, which has been widely criticised for leading to false confessions.
The police may try to trick you into admitting you “might have” been in a certain place at a certain time. If you’re uncertain, don’t give them an inch. “You don’t remember what you ate for breakfast last week,” Litwack says, “so if the cops say you were on video, and you don’t remember if that could be true, don’t agree or disagree. Stay silent.”
Your confession may still be voluntary regardless of the police lies you relied on when making the confession. Litak’s law group writes on the subject, “courts will tolerate some form of police gamesmanship so long as the games do not overcome a suspect’s will and induce a confession not truly voluntary.” In other words, police are totally allowed to play “games” (read: lie) to get you to talk.
The types of lies officers tell
With certain limitations under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, Litwack says the types of lies that the police can use are pretty extensive. Here are some of the most common types of lies used by officers during questioning.
Police officers will claim to have physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA. They’re trying to get a confession or establish anything you know about the incident in question. Remember: Anything you say can and will be used against you, even if you’re trying to deny their claims.
Officers can also claim to have eye witnesses or some other kind of testimony that doesn’t actually exist. Litwack uses the example of two suspects being questioned separately. The cops may lie about one person flipping on the other, in the hopes of that person reacting with incriminating evidence about the other. Don’t say anything until you have a lawyer present.
A search warrant that’s “coming soon”
Officers will claim that a search warrant is “on the way” in the hopes that you’ll comply and let them search your home or car. Whether or not that warrant is real and coming soon, you should refuse entry until you can see concrete proof of the current and active search warrant.
Limitations to the lies police can tell
Although the police can get creative when trying to get a confession, there are theoretical limitations. Understand that law enforcement officers have nothing to with sentencing during your interrogation, so be wary of any sort of promises about letting you off the hook or protecting you in any way if you confess.
Litwack also notes that, on the flip side, officers aren’t allowed to do anything “overly coercive.” He says one example of an “overly coercive” technique might be lying about a suspect getting the death penalty unless they confess then and there. That sort of threat goes beyond the scope of deceptive interrogation practices — or “gamesmanship” — that police are allowed to use.
Your best bet: Keep your mouth shut
If you’re in police custody, request a lawyer and refuse to answer questions until legal aid arrives. “You have a right to shut up,” Litwack says. “Use it.”
Even if you know you’re innocent, you never know how your words might be used against you. Staying silent is more than a right — it’s also your best strategy.