Posts Tagged ‘Miranda’

According to reports this morning by the Arizona Republic, National Public Radio, and other outlets, the U.S. Department of Justice has decided that federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, will electronically record interrogations of people in custody.  This will bring the FBI, DEA, ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies into line with the best practices in law enforcement that have been adopted (in whole or in part) in 20 states and hundreds of individual U.S. police departments, as well as a number of other countries.

Former members of federal law enforcement call this change a “radical departure” and the end of  “an insane policy.”   These descriptions seem correct, since the FBI has been one of the law enforcement agencies most resistant in the U.S. to change on this issue.  The new policy — a presumptive requirement, with exceptions for imminent, life-threatening danger and for national security intelligence-gathering interviews — will take effect on July 11.

(One important fact to note: the information available so far does not indicate whether the new policy will require recording of the entire interrogation — that is, beginning with the administration of Miranda warnings and continuing through to the end of the interrogation.  This requirement is absolutely necessary, because without it, interrogations will contain only the confession of the suspect at the end, without showing its full context.  I am looking for more information on this now and will post again when I learn something about it.)


As recently as 2006, the FBI said in a confidential memorandum that agents could not record interrogations without the express permission of a senior supervisor.  According to the memorandum, agents should generally not record interrogations for several reasons, among them:

[T]he presence of recording equipment may interfere with and undermine the successful rapport building interviewing technique which the FBI practices…[Additionally,] perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants.

As to the first idea, there is no evidence to support the idea that recording would interfere with interrogations.  According to a 2004  study by Thomas Sullivan, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and his colleagues, none of the hundreds of law enforcement agencies surveyed reported that recording interfered with officers’ ability to interrogate suspects.   As for the idea that certain “perfectly lawful…techniques do not always come across” to jurors as proper, that may be because, lawful or not, any juror can see how these techniques — for example,  lying to suspects about the result of supposedly iron-clad forensic evidence or polygraph results — smack of deep unfairness and exert a degree of pressure that may — and sometimes does — resulted in false confessions.

As readers of my book Failed Evidence and this blog know, recording suspect interrogations is one of the most important safeguards against wrongful convictions and abuse during interrogations.  And law enforcement agencies that have the longest experience with recording back it enthusiastically.  For example, Minnesota has required recording of interrogations since 1994.   In a 2002 article that appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was then the elected prosecutor of Hennepin County, Minnesota, argued that “videotaped interrogations have strengthened the ability of police and prosecutors to secure convictions against the guilty.  At the same time, they have helped protect the rights of suspects…”

The DOJ changed the policy with no fanfare — indeed, without even any announcement.  Nevertheless, it represents an undeniable step in the right direction.  The facts of any recorded interrogation will mostly be beyond dispute.  Needless litigation and motions will be avoided, and cases will move through the system (and usually toward guilty pleas) more rapidly.  The worst abuses will be curbed, and a better system will result.



For those who want clarity on how the Miranda warnings, and the government’s use of the “public safety” exception, here’s my interview on WESA FM Public Radio on the program Essential Pittsburgh.  This wide-ranging discussion allowed host Paul Guggenheimer and I to thoroughly explore all the aspects of the Miranda warnings.  How it is actually used by police?  Does the warning actually stop people from talking to the police, undermining efforts to prosecute the guilty?  And how it might impact the prosecution of the Boston bombing case?

In the days since the federal government’s announcement that they would not read the Boston bombing suspect the Miranda warnings, under the “public safety” exception, I’ve had some conversations with some acquaintances — all reasonably bright, aware people.  I’ve asked them what they thought would happen to the bomber in the courts if the government did not read the suspect his rights.  The unanimous reply: the Miranda failure means he’ll be freed because some court will let him “walk on this technicality.”  Those conversations, the uninformed media coverage of the issue, and the willingness of politicians of both parties to twist the law for their own political gain are what motivated me to write an op-ed for yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and to discuss the issue on the radio.

With all the talk about whether the surviving Boston bombing suspect should receive Miranda warnings prior to questioning, our political leaders and the media have obscured what the Miranda case requires, what it does, and its effect on police investigation.  My article “Misunderstanding Miranda,” in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, clears away the unfortunate fog.  Here’s a sample:

Just hours after the second Boston bomber was taken alive, the government announced that it would not give the man Miranda warnings before questioning him. Instead, the Department of Justice said, the attacker would be questioned without warnings under the public safety exception…

Let’s start with a clear understanding of the Miranda warnings. Failing to give Miranda warnings does not interfere with the power of the police to make an arrest. Not giving the warnings does not affect the ability of the prosecution to try a suspect. In fact, not reading a suspect his Miranda warnings does not even violate the person’s rights.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding of Miranda out there, and the public discussion over the last few days has made it worse.  It’s important to know that our police officers and security personell will not be slowed down by Miranda warnings.  The article will tell you why.