Threats, Promises, and the Involuntary Confession

Aside from the concern over a potentially inadmissible involuntary confession, threats and promises often result in a subject's resistance to cooperate.

involuntary confession

We have all dealt with and perhaps made threats and promises in our everyday lives. “You kids cut it out. Don’t make me stop this car!” “If you don’t finish what’s on your plates there will be no dessert.” “When you’ve cleaned your room we’ll go for ice cream.” “If you’re good, Santa will bring you presents.”

But the world of threats and promises applied to the interview can compromise the voluntariness of the confession and admissions made by a subject. This is more likely to be challenged in a criminal setting where the state is playing an adversarial role with the subject who is being afforded constitutional protections against government actions. But the voluntariness of the confession can also be challenged in civil proceedings, when statements are obtained through the interviewer’s use of threats and promises. In other words, an involuntary confession is generally useless.

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Threats, Promises, and the Involuntary Confession

Confessions can be judged involuntary if they are obtained as a result of threats or promises made during the interview. The threat or promise could be explicit, where the investigator clearly states something, or implicit, where the threat or promise is merely hinted. Confessions can also be judged involuntary if they are obtained as a result of explicit threats or promises made to the person. Some examples include:

  • Tell the truth, and you can keep your job.
  • Get this cleared up, and we won’t prosecute.
  • Get this cleared up, or we will turn this over to the police.
  • Don’t make us take this to the authorities.
  • We’d like to handle this within the company.
  • If you don’t get this cleared up, we will take your kids from you.
  • We’d hate to arrest your wife too.
  • You can’t leave until we get this straightened out.
  • If you don’t confess, then we’ll have to arrest your wife and bring her here from your son’s hospital room.
  • Confess, or we’ll call the police. But if you confess, we can get you free counseling and treatment.
  • You can spend years in prison unless you tell the truth.
  • Even though you are a juvenile, you could get the death penalty.
  • If you don’t tell us what happened, we’ll charge your sixteen-year-old son as an adult, and he’ll be sent to prison.
  • Any information you give us will remain confidential. Your wife will never find out.
  • Just tell us the truth, and you can go back to work.
  • You’ll never get another job if we fire you.
  • We’ll get you medical treatment after you’ve done the right thing.
  • We’ll make sure you get deported back home where they know how to deal with people like you.
  • If you ever want another job, you’d better tell me the truth.
  • This is where you will spend the rest of your life on death row.
  • Here’s a picture of the cell where you will be staying for many years.

The real question—why would you use threats and promises during an interview? Aside from the concern over an inadmissible involuntary confession, when these implicit or explicit threats are made, they highlight and focus the individual’s attention on his basic fears of confessing. This generally increases an individual’s resistance to cooperate.

Most people are hesitant to confess because they are afraid of jail, loss of reputation, losing their means of making a living, or retribution. Many times, the subject has not even considered the possibility of what may happen after confessing, and now the interviewer has brought it to the surface. We strongly urge you to stay away from making any threats or promises during the interview or loss prevention interrogation, as they may compromise the voluntariness of the confession or its admissibility.

Learn more about voluntariness and confessions obtained by private citizens in the full article, “Implicit or Explicit–Why Do It at All?“, which was originally published in 2017. This excerpt was updated October 17, 2017.

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