The Not-So-Grand Inquisitor: Equal Justice and Police Interrogations in Indiana

Much of what passes for interesting reading for lawyers is just mind-numbingly tedious procedural minutia to everyone else. But the recent Bond v. State decision from the Indiana Supreme Court actually poses some questions that non-lawyers might find interesting, too.  At issue is how far police can go when using deceptive methods to obtain a confession from a suspect. The case has ignited much discussion in legal circles about criminal justice, police investigatory techniques, and race.

Suppose the police suspect Bert and Ernie of robbing a liquor store and shooting a clerk in the process, and the detectives arrest them both and put them in separate holding areas. They question Bert, and then Ernie. Then they return to Bert and tell him that Ernie has already confessed and if Bert would only fess up too, the prosecutor would be more likely to recommend a lenient sentence to the judge.

Of course, anyone who has seen Law & Order (or has an extremely cynical take on Sesame Street) knows that Ernie has not confessed. The police are lying to Bert. And there are endless variations on this lie. The police could claim to have Bert’s fingerprints.  Or that the liquor store clerk identified his photo from his hospital bed. Or that a surveillance video from the pawn shop across the street clearly identifies Bert and Ernie leaving the liquor store’s parking lot. The U.S. Supreme Court held long ago that the police may use deceptive methods when interrogating witnesses. Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969).

ImageBut are there limits on deceptive police techniques? Sure. Imagine that the officer questioning Bert tells him that someone in the next room has Big Bird strapped to a car battery and standing in a bucket of water, and that the only choices that Bert has now are, “original, extra crispy, or confession.” So Bert signs the confession. Isn’t this just another deception used to trick him into confessing? No. In this case, Bert’s confession is coerced. Bert isn’t tricked into confessing, he’s forced into confessing. Big difference.  A permissible deception can’t trick an innocent person into confessing–at least in theory.  If Bert and Ernie are innocent, then the police assertion that Ernie “has already confessed” will only be met with bewilderment by Bert. However, threats to the life of Big Bird would cause even an innocent Bert to confess.

As long as Bert’s confession is not coerced or forced, then Bert’s motivation for making the confession can legally be based on a false premise, even a false premise the police create.

So how was Bond v. State noteworthy? In the Bond case, the detective told Bond that he would not receive a fair trial from people in Schererville and Crown Point because he is black.

While both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found the officer’s behavior deplorable, neither could say that it was illegal.  Since it was not illegal, the confession was admissible as evidence against Bond. However, the Indiana Supreme Court is more suited to make law than lower courts, and to consider the broader policy implications of rules of court procedure. In this case, the Court found that the technique of suggesting that Bond could not receive a fair trail because of his race was fundamentally different than a deception about the evidence against him. “[I]n this case Bond was intentionally deceived as to the fairness of the criminal justice system itself because of the color of his skin,” the Court noted.  It also said:

Regardless of the evidence held against him or the circumstances of the alleged crime, [Bond] was left with the unequivocal impression that because he was African American he would spend the rest of his life in jail. Unless he confessed. And in unfortunate days gone by, this might have been the case. But no one wants to go back to such a time or place in the courtroom, and so we will not allow even the perception of such inequality to enter the interrogation room.

Courts are normally utilitarian in their use of words, which seldom affords them the opportunity to be truly artful within a court opinion, but the Bond case was different than most. It provided an historic platform to look back at the progress of equal access to justice, and speak for–and to–the ages.  The Court continued:

As Dr. King did, we likewise “refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony (December 10, 1964). We simply cannot and will not risk this going further, and therefore draw a firm line today.

Thus . . . this deception by the detective tips the scale to involuntariness. We cannot tacitly countenance the erosion of everything so many have worked so hard to achieve in the realm of racial equality in the justice system—and continue to work to achieve—by disapproving of the statement but finding Bond’s confession nevertheless admissible.

As a practical matter, Bond’s confession is now inadmissible.  If Bond did commit a crime, the State will have to find other evidence if it wants to convict him.

A recent entry in the Indiana Law Blog described the feedback from the legal community surrounding this case.  One comment identified what it considered the “elephant in the room” of the Court’s opinion: was the representation the detective made true? What if Bond really can’t get a fair trial from a jury drawn from Schererville and Crown Point? This is not to single out any one community. Indiana’s racial history certainly has its jagged edges, and many of us have anecdotal evidence of racism, often associated–correctly or not–with entire communities. The point to ponder is whether such a technique is really a police deception at all if it’s true.

Another commenting attorney made the point that he has advised African-American clients that certain communities would be more likely to convict based on race, and that those clients have accepted plea agreements more readily as a result. So, the argument goes, how can it be unacceptable for a police detective to advise a criminal defendant of something that his own lawyer might say?  And is the lawyer to be reprimanded for his actions, or commended for frank and wise counsel to his clients?

In some respects, racial equality in the justice system is a victim of its own success. When racism was more widely accepted, objective evidence that a community would spawn racist juries would have been easier to come by. Today, racism is so widely condemned that it’s simply not possible to prove that a given community will always–or event predominantly–produce racially biased juries. So all we will ever have is anecdotal evidence, the “I knew a guy who . . .” stuff that legends are made of.

My support of the Bond decision does not require quantifying racially biased juries. If an African-American would confess, or accept a plea agreement more quickly, for fear that a jury would be racially motivated to convict him, then we need not prove actual racial bias in the justice system because the specter of racial bias has already caused harm.  Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, the fear of biased juries causes certain defendants to exercise less than the full panoply of rights given them by law, which is a harm all its own. The fear of biased results begets biased results. For a police officer–the embodiment of state power–to invoke that fear is inconsistent with the promise of equal justice under law.

If you’d like to sit in on more of this debate, the Supreme Court’s oral arguments are available online.