Posts Tagged ‘interrogation’

Right for the Wrong Reasons: Why terrorists and enemy combatants don’t belong in civilian criminal courts

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Last week, the House passed a bill that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts (by cutting off the funds to do so).  The Senate is now considering it as part of the 1,900-page omnibus spending bill.  This is largely seen as a reaction to the acquittal of Ahmed Ghaliani — the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court — of more than 280 charges stemming from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

The Obama administration is fighting against it, with AG Holder writing a (fairly lame, in our eyes) letter insisting that we absolutely must use civilian courts to deal with terrorists and captured combatants.  Essentially, his argument is that civilian courts are a tool that has worked before, so why deny that tool to the executive branch and make it fight the bad guys with one hand tied behind its back?

Ignore the ham-handed attempt to co-opt a common complaint about the left’s frequent insistence on soldiers doing actual fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, lest they rile someone’s sensibilities.  It’s a dumb argument.  Guantanamo detainees didn’t commit crimes within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.  Their acts are acts of war, or of transnational combat that is more like war than anything else.

Congress is gearing up to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.  The principle should not be “we can’t do this because we might lose in court” — that’s not even a principle.  It’s just a weakling’s worry.  The principle should be “we can’t do this because it’s wrong.”

First off, soldiers are (more…)

They’re Not on Your Side

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

When we were kids, the police were the good guys.  They were who you could turn to if you got lost.  They were the ones who protected us from the bad guys.  They were on our side.

When we were kids, of course, we learned a simplified version of reality.  All the “lies we tell children” because the truth is too complex, or because it’s the way we’d like them to think.  The problem is that lots of us grow up without ever learning the “reality” version of reality.  The results can be tragic.

Because the police are not on our side.  And woe betide the honest citizen who acts like they are.  It’s not that the police are bad.  The vast majority are good, decent folks.  It’s that the police see the world in “us against them” terms.  And we good honest citizens are part of the “them.”

We all know that being a police officer can be dangerous.  When a cop pulls you over, or encounters you on the street, he has no way of knowing whether you’re going to be that one wack-job who pulls a gun or a knife on him.  It happens.  Because the world contains wack-jobs, thugs and the like, we are all potential threats.

But that’s not the half of it.  For a while now, the police have felt embattled.  They’re constantly criticized for violating civil rights.  They’re hamstrung by “technicalities” that make it harder for them to do their job.  Politicians, protestors and the proletariat are constantly pointing fingers at the police.  We civilians are a spoiled, ungrateful bunch.

And hence, the “thin blue line.”  From a police perspective, it’s an us-against-them world, and if you’re not in law enforcement then you’re on the other side.

Now a police officer cannot help but notice that there are only a few of “us,” and a heck of a lot of “them.”  The only thing protecting the police is a perception of their authority.  If the public loses that perception, the police lose their power.  So they desperately need us to respect their authoritah.  Any sign of insubordination must be dealt with right away.

It’s a neurotic worldview.  It’s a perfectly rational reaction, but that doesn’t make it any less paranoid.

And of course their job is not “to protect and serve” — at least not in their eyes.  Their job is to (more…)

Why Innocent People Confess — Update

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Last month, we wrote a piece here on reasons why innocent people wind up confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.  It’s a horrible thought, yet it happens far too often.  (For tips on defending cases involving a confession, see our CLE lecture over at West Legal Ed Center.)

Anyway, there’s a good article in the latest issue of New York Magazine called “I Did It: Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit?”  It’s worth a read, so we figured we’d give you all the link.

Temporary Incomprehension

Monday, October 4th, 2010

The blawgosphere was atwitter recently over that Kentucky murder trial where the defendant had confessed, but claimed it was a false confession, due to “sleep-deprived psychosis” from drinking too much coffee.  The jury didn’t buy it (here’s a short article on it).

Did that case remind anyone else of this short film?

Still Life

It’s no secret that sleep deprivation does crazy things to the brain.  Among other things, it dramatically impairs judgment and cognition, and for this reason has for decades been seen as a highly effective interrogation tool by intelligence agencies around the world.  No matter how well trained, most people are simply going to break after a fairly short period of disorientation and sleep deprivation.  Of course, sleep deprivation also results in hallucinations, extreme discomfort, and memory problems — as well as increased suggestibility — making useful interrogation under such circumstances a job requiring the utmost care and attention.  It’s worse than dealing with a young child (as we all know, children are enormously suggestible, so that their statements can be manipulated unwittingly even by one’s body language and tone of voice).  It’s like questioning a child who is stressing from sheer confusion, and who is also in a hypnotic state.  Suffice it to say that the slightest error by the interrogator can produce completely unreliable results, or at best results that must be artfully interpreted to divine what’s more likely to be the truth.

Suffice it also to say that the vast majority of law enforcement officers do not conduct interrogations with such extreme care.  If any do.

So this this defense, in and of itself, isn’t as laughable as (more…)

Why Innocent People Confess

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

It should come as no surprise to anyone with any experience in criminal law that perfectly innocent people will sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.  Perhaps they were in a suggestible state, and the police led them to believe they’d done it.  Maybe they were broken by the interrogation and said whatever the cops wanted to hear, just to end it.  Maybe they didn’t really confess, but had their words taken out of context (or invented) by the cops.  (For tips on defending cases involving a confession, see our CLE lecture over at West Legal Ed Center.)

In recent years, there has been growing attention to the phenomenon of false confessions, and folks have begun investigating the reasons why an innocent person will not only confess to a crime he didn’t commit, but will often do so with such detail that it seems impossible for them not to have committed it.  The New York Times had a decent article yesterday on this very phenomenon.  The article reports on a study by UVA (wahoowa!) law professor Brandon Garrett, into reasons why an innocent person may sometimes confess with extraordinary detail.

To defense lawyers, the new research is eye opening. “In the past, if somebody confessed, that was the end,” said Peter J. Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, an organization based in Manhattan. “You couldn’t imagine going forward.”

The notion that such detailed confessions might be deemed voluntary because the defendants were not beaten or coerced suggests that courts should not simply look at whether confessions are voluntary, Mr. Neufeld said. “They should look at (more…)

Can Yoo Be Sued?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

9th_circuit

In the early days of the War on Terrorism, the Bush administration wanted to know what interrogation techniques were legal.  So it asked the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel for a memo on what could and could not be done to prisoners.  Staff lawyer John Yoo was tasked with doing the research and writing.  He did his research, wrote his memo, and that was that.

Well, no.  That was not that.  Some people didn’t agree with his legal reasoning.  More people (most of whom never even read the memo) shrilly lambasted it as a “war crime.”  We’re not particular fans of the memo ourselves (see our parody of it here), but we think it’s beyond stupid to call it a war crime, or even the slightest bit of misconduct.  He did what any lawyer in that situation is supposed to do: he analyzed existing law, and gave his opinion of what the law said.  The fact that other people disagree, even disagree strongly, doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  The fact that his conclusions don’t comport with other people’s policies or principles still doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  Even if he was wrong, that doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.

But now the 9th Circuit is struggling with the issue of whether Mr. Yoo can actually be sued for having written that memo.  Again, we’re no fans of the memo, but how he could possibly be sued for having given fair legal advice is beyond us.  Allowing this case to go forward, as we’ll discuss in a minute, would have enormously bad consequences for the government and the military.

-=-=-=-=-

The case was brough by Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, who was arrested in 2002 for plotting a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack.  Padilla was in military custody for about four years, during which time he claims to have been subjected to sleep deprivation, stress positions, extended periods of light and dark, and other interrogation techniques.  Padilla filed a lawsuit last year against John Yoo, claiming that Yoo’s memos “set in motion a series of events that resulted in (more…)

How the Court Should Rule in Shatzer

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

The Supreme Court heard a very important argument this week in the case of Maryland v. Shatzer. It was one of those situations where the oral argument makes a huge difference in the outcome of the case. We read the briefs earlier this month, and remarked to colleagues that both sides’ arguments seemed eminently reasonable. So reasonable that we couldn’t form a strong opinion either way.

But the oral arguments convinced us thoroughly: Both sides are stupid.

-=-=-=-=-

The case involves custodial interrogation, and whether and when it can be started again after someone has asked for a lawyer.

When someone is in custody, and they ask for a lawyer, interrogation is supposed to stop. If the police keep questioning anyway, then the defendant’s answers cannot be used to prove the case against him.

So even if someone confesses to the crime at that point, the confession cannot be used to prove he did it. Even if there is no evidence of duress, and there is every reason to believe that the confession is perfectly reliable, it cannot be used.

The underlying policy is that our criminal justice system puts a greater value on not overriding someone’s free will. We don’t want people to be forced to hang themselves. Getting into someone’s mind, and making them testify against themselves, against their will, is abhorrent to us. It reeks of torture, the Inquisition and Star Chamber.

That explains why custodial interrogation gets the Miranda rights, but there is no similar concern with taking non-testimonial evidence from someone against their will. A breathalyzer, a blood test, a voice exemplar, a vial of spit — we don’t really care whether you want to provide the evidence or not. The evidence exists independently of your free will. But a confession during interrogation is solely a matter of free will.

And confessions are dramatic evidence, to be sure. Once evidence of a confession comes in at trial, it’s nigh impossible for a jury to think the defendant didn’t do it. It’s a game-ending bit of evidence, in most cases.

Police custody, in and of itself, is such an extreme and distressing situation that the law just presumes it to be coercive. If an objectively reasonable person would not have thought he was free to leave, then he’s being compelled to sit there and deal with the cops. There’s compulsion, because the cops can keep questioning you until you break, and confess. Maybe it’s a true confession, and maybe you’re just saying it to make it all stop, but either way your free will was overridden.

And so we have the Miranda rule, which says that defendants must be informed of their right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer present during any custodial questioning. If someone’s questioned in custody without being given these warnings — even if they’re a respected jurist who already knew them — then his answers cannot be used against him. And if he is given the warnings, and exercises his right to remain silent or his right to counsel, but the police keep questioning him, then his answers cannot be used against him.

If the defendant says he won’t talk without a lawyer present, then allquestioning must cease. This is a per se exclusion, period. The police cannot re-start questioning unless the defendant himself initiates further discussion. Unlike the right to silence, which can be waived down the road after new Mirandawarnings, the right to a lawyer once asserted can never be waived again, no matter how many times the police re-Mirandize him. It can only be waived if the attorney is actually present at the time. That’s the principal rule of Edwards.

(Note that asking for a lawyer here is the same as saying you won’t talk without a lawyer present. Unlike the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, where once you’ve actually been charged with a crime you’re entitled to have a lawyer provided, this is the Fifth Amendment right to counsel. The cops don’t have to get you a lawyer, they just have to stop questioning you until you get one.)

This is a bright-line rule. Our jurisprudence likes bright-line rules here. We don’t want the cops to have to think about what they can and cannot do; we want them to know. We don’t want a balancing test of competing principles, because that means the courts would have to get involved and decide what can and cannot be done. It would have to be decided after the fact, on a case-by-case basis. Without a bright-line rule, the police would probably engage in more improper interrogations than otherwise, because who knows what some judge down the road might think was okay? And who knows whether the case would even get that far?

So bright-line rules here protect defendants’ interests, police interests, and the courts’ interests. And Edwards is nothing if not a bright-line rule.

The problem with bright-line rules is that they are absolute, they have no exceptions, and so unless they are narrowly-tailored they can have absurd results.

And that is why this week the Supreme Court heard the case of Maryland v. Shatzer.

-=-=-=-=-

Six years ago, Michael Shatzer was in state prison, serving a lengthy sentence. Meanwhile, a social worker got a report that Shatzer had (before going to prison, obviously) forced his then-three-year-old son to perform fellatio on him. The social worker told the cops, and an officer came to the prison to talk to Shatzer about it.

Shatzer was taken to an interrogation room, and was given his Miranda rights. Shatzer asked for a lawyer, and the officer ended the interrogation. The officer went away, and Shatzer was taken out of the interrogation room and returned to his regular custody. The investigation was eventually closed.

Nearly three years passed. Shatzer remained in prison.

Now his son was a few years older, and was able to give more details about what had happened to him. The police began a new investigation, which was assigned to a new police officer.

The new officer went to the prison, Shatzer was taken to the interrogation room, and the officer Mirandized him.

This time, Shatzer waived his rights, and agreed to speak with the officer. He flatly denied the allegations that he had forced his son to perform fellatio on him. But he did admit to having masturbated in front of his little boy.

A few days later, the questioning continued. Shatzer was Mirandized again, and he again waived his rights. He took a polygraph test and failed it. Then he started crying and said “I didn’t force him. I didn’t force him.”

At this point, he finally asked for a lawyer, and the questioning ended.

Shatzer was prosecuted for sexually abusing his son. He tried to suppress his statements, on the grounds that he should never have been questioned the second time, under the Edwards rule. He’d asked for a lawyer, and that per se prohibition never evaporated.

The trial court said no, the statements could come in, because the intervening three years constituted a “break in custody” that ended the Edwards prohibition on further questioning. Custody had ended, so the compulsory situation had gone away. The new questioning was a new custodial interrogation justifying a new Miranda warning that was properly waived.

After Shatzer got convicted, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that the passage of time cannot constitute a break in custody. The court held that, if there is a break-in-custody exception to Edwards, it first of all would have to mean something different than the break-in-custody exception for the right to remain silent, and secondly it wouldn’t have existed here anyway when Shatzer had remained in prison the whole time.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Edwards prohibition must evaporate over time, so that a substantial lapse of time between interrogations would allow the cops to re-Mirandize and try again. The point of Edwards is to prevent the cops from “badgering” a defendant into answering questions without a lawyer, the state said. (At the end of its brief, Maryland even suggested that the bright-line rule ought to be overturned.)

Shatzer’s brief argued that the bright-line rule had to be maintained, to ensure that defendants aren’t coerced into making confessions. If a defendant asks for a lawyer, and all he gets is another reading of his rights, he’s hardly going to expect a second request for a lawyer to be effective, and so he might as well speak. It would undermine the whole point. And if a “break in custody” is all it takes to restart the Edwards rule, then all the cops would have to do is release, rearrest and repeat until the defendant finally gave in.

-=-=-=-=-

Both merits briefs seemed eminently reasonable.

But the oral arguments were frankly idiotic. Both sides made absolutely unreasonable claims that could only undermine their arguments.

For example, Chief Justice Roberts let Maryland’s A.G. get three sentences out before cutting to the point: “A break in custody of one day, do you think that should be enough?” Maryland’s response: Yes.

Roberts pressed on: “So what if it’s repeatedly done? You know, you bring him in, you give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk,’ you let him go. You bring him in, give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk.” You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says ‘all right, I’ll talk.” Maryland’s response: “We would suggest that the break of custody would be the end of the Edwards irrebuttable presumption.”

Shatzer’s position was even worse, if you can believe it.

The Public Defender opened her mouth to speak, and Justice Alito jumped down her throat. Her first words were that the Court couldn’t create any exceptions to the rule. Alito said, hold on, let’s say “someone is taken into custody in Maryland in 1999 and questioned for joy riding, [invokes his right to counsel, is] released from custody, and then in 2009 is taken into custody and questioned for murder in Montana…. Now does the Edwards rule apply to the second interrogation?” The lawyer’s response: “Yes it does, Justice Alito.”

As one might expect, the justices went to town on the lawyers. Scalia, as usual, got in some good laugh lines at their expense. We’ll leave the entire oral argument to your own reading enjoyment (you can read it here), but these opening exchanges sum it up pretty well.

Maryland’s position is idiotic. They want a bright-line rule that any break in custody ends the Edwards prohibition. It would allow precisely the catch-and-release badgering that Roberts suggested. They argued that, during the release period, if the defendant didn’t go out and get a lawyer, then they’ve essentially revoked the request to have an attorney present at any future questioning.

Shatzer’s position is equally idiotic, if not more so. He wants a bright-line rule that any invocation of the right to counsel essentially immunizes a defendant from any further police questioning in any subsequent action anywhere, for the rest of his life, whether or not the police could have even known about his prior invocation of the right. A police officer in Alaska would have to ascertain whether a suspect had ever been interrogated by police anywhere else in the country at any time in the suspect’s life, and whether the suspect had asked for a lawyer then. That’s flatly impossible and unrealistic.

Both of the parties claim that the existing bright-line rule might create absurdities in theory. To prevent them, they each propose reductio ad absurdum rules at the extreme ends of the spectrum, guaranteed to create absurdities in practice. Well done, folks.

(The lawyer for the United States, as amicus, did make an important point — that the whole purpose is to make sure people aren’t being compelled to incriminate themselves against their will — but the rest of his time was eaten up by nonsense about how long a break in custody would count as enough of a break to evaporate an assertion of the right to counsel.)

-=-=-=-=-

So what should the rule actually be? Seriously, this is not rocket surgery here. The answer seems perfectly obvious:

1) If a suspect was in custody, was read his Miranda rights, and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to have a lawyer present during questioning…

2) And if there was a break in custody, so that an objectively reasonable person would have felt free to leave his questioners…

3) Then there is a rebuttable presumption that his invoked right to counsel continues to be invoked with respect to any subsequent questioning about the same underlying allegations.

4) The state can rebut this presumption with facts that demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that the suspect no longer desired the presence of counsel during questioning. (This will necessarily be extremely rare, though not at all inconceivable.)

The rule could be streamlined even further, by deleting the phrase “there is a rebuttable presumption that” from #3, and deleting #4 altogether.

This rule provides all the protections that defendants, law enforcement and the courts require. At the same time, it avoids the absurdities of the existing bright-line rule, and of the more extreme bright-line rules proposed by the parties in this case.

Thought Police?

Monday, October 20th, 2008

brain scan

Guilt or innocence, one might say, is all in the mind. After all, there are very few crimes that can be committed without the requisite mens rea, or mental state. If we’re going to punish someone, their acts cannot have been mere accident. We want to know that they had some knowledge that their actions could cause harm, and we want that awareness to be sufficiently high as to require punishment.

The standard criminal levels of mens rea are “negligence” (you ought to have known bad things could happen), “recklessness” (you had good reason to believe that bad things would probably happen), “knowledge” (bad things were probably going to happen), and “intent” or “purpose” (you wanted bad things to happen). If your foot kicks someone in the ribs while you’re falling downstairs, you’re not a criminal. But if you kick someone in the ribs because you don’t like them, then society probably wants to punish you.

We cannot know what anyone was thinking when they did something, however. So we rely on jurors to use their common sense to figure out what an accused must have been thinking at the time.

In recent years, however, there have been enormous advances in neuroscience. Brain scans, the software that processes the data, and good science have approached levels that would have been considered science fiction as recently as the Clinton years. Experts in the field can see not only how the brain is put together, but also what an individual brain is doing in real time. Experimental data show which parts of the brain are active when people are thinking certain things, with good detail.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in particular, can act as a super lie-detector. Instead of measuring someone’s perspiration and heart rate while they answer questions during a polygraph exam, fMRI looks at actual real-time brain activity in areas having to do with logic, making decisions, perhaps even lying. Experimental data of large groups is pretty good at identifying what parts of the brain are associated with different kinds of thinking.

Every brain is slightly different, of course. Brain surgeons have to learn the individual brain they’re operating on before they start cutting. So general group data don’t translate to an individual person 100%. So any lie-detector use for fMRI would have to require some baseline analysis before proceeding to the important questions.

The issue is whether it will be admissible in court. Polygraph tests generally aren’t admissible, because they’re more an art than a science. But fMRI is all science. In addition, brain scans are already widely admissible for the purpose of reducing a sentence because the defendant had damage to his brain. As forensic neuroscience expert Daniell Martell told the New York Times in 2007, brain scans are now de rigeur in capital cases. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court, ruling that adolescents cannot be executed, allowed brain scan evidence for the purpose of showing adolescent brains really are different.

Outside the United States, brain scans have already begun to be used by the prosecution to show guilt. In India, a woman was recently convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend with the admission of brainwave-based lie detection. There was other evidence of guilt as well, including the fact that she admitted buying the poison that killed him. But the brainwave analysis was admitted.

There are deeper policy issues here. Is reading someone’s brain activity more like taking a blood sample, or more like taking a statement? The Miranda rule is there, at heart, because we do not want the government to override people’s free will, and force them to incriminate themselves out of their own mouths against their will. That’s why the fruits of a custodial interrogation are presumed inadmissible, unless the defendant first knowingly waives his rights against self-incrimination. And because the DNA in your blood isn’t something you make of your own free will, by taking a blood sample against your will the government has not forced you to incriminate yourself against your will.

So is a brain scan more like a blood sample? Is it simply taking evidence of what is there, without you consciously providing testimony against yourself? Or will it require the knowing waiver of your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights before it can be applied?

We’re interested in your thoughts. Feel free to comment.