Justice and Due Process

The Police Should Not Be Able to Lie to Children

Landon Hooley is a policy intern at Libertas Institute and a student at Brigham Young University

Huwe Burton, at only 16 years old, falsely confessed to killing his own mother due to the psychological pressures of police interrogation. After 20 years in jail and another decade of legal work, he was finally exonerated.

Police are devoted civil servants with a strong sense of duty and justice, but this reputation is tarnished when they are allowed to engage in deceptive practices, especially towards minors.

Yet police regularly engage in deception tactics around the US in order to draw out confessions from arrestees during interrogation. Juveniles are especially vulnerable to manipulation by these means.

Illinois recently banned their police from lying to juveniles in May of this year, becoming the first state in the country to do so, followed closely by Oregon in June. Utah should follow suit.

It’s almost always legal for police to lie during interrogations. They may tell subjects they have been implicated in a crime, that they have evidence that is actually nonexistent, or even falsely claim that they’ve received confessions from associates of the subject.

While there are some limits as to what police can lie about, especially miscontruing rights or forcing involuntary confessions, the rules outlining how far police can go are somewhat fuzzy. Confusion around what constitutes a voluntary confession has been pondered on for decades due to unclear court decisions and guidelines.

It’s a logical contradiction and moral subversion to suppose that the use of deceptive techniques will result in honest confessions all or even most of the time. The problem isn’t just that it’s morally wrong to intentionally lie to a juvenile, it’s also ineffective at extracting authentic confessions.

In a wrongful conviction study, researchers found that 44 percent of exonerated juveniles had been convicted based on false confessions.

Encouraging truthful questioning by police serves as a statement supporting a forthcoming, honest justice system that prioritizes the truth over convictions and more adequately upholds the presumption of innocence that our country has held as sacred since its inception. 

Ben Franklin rightly stated that “it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer.”

If our justice system should err, let it be on the side of presuming innocence. By abolishing the use of deception towards minors, the vulnerable are protected and the innocent kept free.