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Can Police Lie When Investigating a Crime?


Generally, during an investigation, police are allowed to use deceptive tactics against suspects. Their methods can include both psychological and physical deception. However, their behavior can’t be such that it unduly coercers someone to commit a crime, infringes on a person’s rights, or forces an individual to confess to doing something they did not do.

Undercover or Entrapment

Physical deceptive techniques could include such things as undercover operations. For instance, police officers may pose a drug buyer or seller to see if a person will commit a drug crime. Although some defendants have challenged the use of such methods and motioned to have evidence dismissed, courts have found covert investigation practices legal.

However, these operations can go too far. When an officer’s actions make a person do something they were not predisposed to do, their deception could cross the line into entrapment.

Under California law, if a cop harasses, threatens, or pressures someone to engage in illegal activity, their conduct could be challenged in court. When evaluating this argument, the court will measure the defendant’s actions against what a reasonable, law-abiding citizen would do. If it finds that, under similar circumstances, such a person would have resisted the opportunity to commit a crime, the entrapment defense will not hold up.

Violating a Defendant’s Rights

The U.S. Constitution provides numerous protections for citizens. When investigating a crime, law enforcement’s conduct must not infringe upon these rights. If it does, the evidence obtained could be thrown out at court, and the prosecutor’s arguments could be weakened.

Some form of deception might occur during the evidence-gathering stage of the investigation. The police may have a person of interest and need to search the individual’s property for items that demonstrate they committed the alleged offense.

Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, which means, typically, cops need a warrant to search property. However, if the suspect voluntarily gives consent for officers to enter their home or vehicle, the search may be deemed lawful. Knowing this, officers might use deceit when seeking to gain permission to look through a person’s home or vehicle; often, phrasing their request as a command as opposed to a question.

Officers have also used deception to get a suspect to open a door so they could present a warrant and execute a search. For instance, in United States v. Contreras-Ceballos, Alaska State Troopers said they were a delivery company so the occupant of a home would answer. When she did, they presented the court order and conducted their search. The defendant argued that the evidence gathered should have been suppressed because it went against the federal “knock-and-announce” statute. However, the court stated that the officers’ deception was not a violation because they only said they were a delivery company to get the door open. After that, they said who they were and their purpose for being there.

However, it is unlawful for police to say they have a warrant when they don’t or to lie about what they are looking for.

Fifth Amendment Rights

Under the Fifth Amendment, people are protected from providing self-incriminating statements to police. Before commencing an interrogation, law enforcement must inform the individual in custody of their rights. If the person chooses to remain silent, they do not have to answer officers’ questions, and the cops can’t force them to.

However, if the individual gives up their right, any answers they give can be used against them in court. During the interrogation, officers can use psychological tactics to get a person to admit they are guilty of an alleged offense. This could include telling the suspect they found their fingerprints at the crime scene or they’ve just watched a surveillance video of the crime that shows the suspect engaged in illegal activity.

Contact Appel & Morse Today for a Free Consultation

Together, our attorneys have over 40 years of experience, and we have tackled cases of varying complexity. If you were charged with an offense, speak with us today. We will review your case to determine if law enforcement’s conduct went too far and violated your rights. Our priority is to build an effective defense and challenge the evidence against you.

For a team committed to working toward a favorable outcome on your behalf, call us at (805) 467-6060 or contact us online.

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