Leaving The Room During an Interrogation

We see it all the time on television cop shows. The investigator is interrogating a suspect and the suspect offers a strong denial. The investigator gets out of his chair and says, “Fine, if you don’t want to get this clarified I’ll see you at trial.” The investigator just barely steps out of the room when the suspect shouts, “Hold it! I’ll tell you what happened.”

Anyone who interrogates criminal suspects for a living recognizes this as pure fiction. Leaving the room during an interrogation is often a symptom that the interrogation is not going well and may lead to tactics that result in a suppressed confession. Not always, however. There are occasions when leaving the interrogation room is not only appropriate, but advisable. This web tip addresses the pros and cons of this practice.

What Reid Teaches
During our training seminars we do not show a single video of the investigator leaving the room during the interrogation and returning later to resume it. Clearly, it is our general recommendation that once the decision has been made to interrogate a suspect, i.e., evidence indicates the suspect’s probable involvement in the offense, that the investigator conduct the interrogation during one continuous session without leaving the room other than to retrieve a second person to witness the confession, if one is obtained. Furthermore, if the suspect is still maintaining his total innocence after 3 or 4 hours, the interrogation should be terminated and the suspect dismissed from the room or, if in custody, returned to his cell.

Even though this is what we teach the reality is that many investigators are not able to maintain a stream of persuasive statements for 45 or 60 minutes. Many investigators don’t have the patience to wait for the suspect to go through the internal thought process of deciding to tell the truth. Typically, these investigators present their evidence, offer a short theme and throw out an alternative question which the suspect rejects. The interrogation then deteriorates into accusations and denials:

I: “I know you did this.”
S: “But I didn’t.”
I: “You’re lying to me.”
S: “No I’m not.”

Ultimately, the frustrated investigator stomps out of the room. After a period of time the investigator (or a new one) returns to the room and round two starts: “Our evidence clearly indicates that you are the person who did this…”

Why it is Undesirable to Leave the Room

There are three primary reasons for our recommendation not to leave the suspect alone in the room for extended periods of time during an interrogation:

(1) Invites claims of duress

A frequent cause for a confession to be suppressed is the allegation that the interrogation was too lengthy, resulting in duress or an oppressive environment. When interrogations last 8 or 12 hours there is no way a single investigator can maintain a steam of persuasive statements for that duration of time. It is just too physically and emotionally draining. The alternative is for several investigators to work as a tag team to wear the suspect down, or for a single investigator to periodically leave the room to rest and eat while the suspect “stews” alone in the room for long periods of time.

Making the suspect feel isolated and hopeless by forcing him to sit alone in an interrogation room for extended periods of time may result in a confession. This is especially so if the suspect is threatened in some way, perhaps by telling him that he will not leave the room until he confesses. But these tactics are also likely to result in a coerced or even false confession.

(2) Allows the suspect time to focus on consequences

The reason guilty suspects lie about committing a crime is to avoid suffering the consequences associated with their crime. Because of this, one of the major goals of an interrogation is to not reinforce negative consequences associated with telling the truth (discussing prison, the trial, the suspect’s loss of self-esteem). Rather the investigator needs to reinforce the suspect’s initial justifications for committing the crime (the interrogation theme). If a guilty suspect is to be persuaded to tell the truth the investigator needs to re-direct the suspect’s mind from impending consequences to the perceived circumstances that contributed to his decision to commit the crime.

However, after an investigator has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the guilty suspect to confess and the investigator leaves the room, the solitary suspect will naturally ponder the undesirable consequences awaiting him if he tells the truth. Consequently, when the investigator returns to the room to resume the interrogation, the suspect will be more fortified to offer denials or try a different strategy to escape consequences, perhaps by requesting an attorney.

For the very same reason, it is our recommendation that once a suspect has offered a full confession, the confession be witnessed within a short period of time. It has been our experience that guilty suspects who are left alone in the room for too long after confessing renege on their confession.

(3) Decreases the investigator’s perceived confidence in the suspect’s guilt

Guilty suspects will not accept consequences for their crime unless they believe that their guilt has been, or eventually will be established. While it is generally true that prior to an interrogation evidence does implicate the suspect in the crime, rarely is that evidence so conclusive as to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of this, during an interrogation investigators often need to exaggerate their level of confidence in the suspect’s guilt.

For example, at the outset of the interrogation the investigator does not say to the suspect, “Joe, the evidence we have collected indicates that you could have committed this crime. However, our evidence is not strong enough to get a conviction which is why I need you to confess to me.” Rather, the investigator starts the interrogation by saying, “Joe our evidence clearly indicates that you committed this crime. I want to sit down with you so we can resolve this thing.”

What happens though when, after 45 minutes of expressing high confidence in the suspect’s guilt, the investigator runs out of persuasive statements? Typically, the investigator “buys time” and excuses himself from the interrogation room. The suspect, left alone with his thoughts, recognizes that the investigator has not presented any convincing evidence of his guilt and also that the investigator is losing stamina. It is, therefore, not surprising that when the investigator returns to continue the interrogation he finds a suspect who challenges evidence and is argumentative with respect to the investigative findings.

Acceptable Reasons for Leaving the Room During an Interrogation

Apart from stepping out of the room to retrieve a witness to the confession, there are other instances where an investigator may consider stepping out of the room during an interrogation:

(1) To regain emotional control

Guilty suspects are good at pushing an investigator’s buttons. It is to their advantage to have the investigator become angry and hostile because it is psychologically easier to lie to someone we resent or who is mistreating us, i.e., “the enemy.” Consequently, guilty suspects will accuse investigators of bigotry, incompetence, dishonesty and anything else in an effort to cause the investigator to lose emotional control during the interrogation.

Some investigators can tolerate a great deal of psychological abuse and insults before losing their temper, while others have less emotional control. When an investigator senses that he is on the verge of losing his temper it is time to leave the interrogation room. Prior to leaving the room, the investigator may state something like the following: “Joe, we’re not getting anything accomplished here. I’m going to step out of the room, and while I’m gone I want you to think about what I’ve been telling you. When I come back let’s get this thing straightened out!”

While outside the room the investigator should take some deep breaths and compose himself. If he cannot regain emotional control the investigator should not return to the room. Sometimes an investigator may feign anger or annoyance with the suspect as an interrogation tactic, typically followed by an apology for getting emotionally upset. However, when the investigator, in fact, is angry, resentful or frustrated with the suspect and cannot contain those feelings, it is not possible to conduct a professional interrogation. Under that circumstance, a second investigator should return to the room and resume the interrogation.

(2) To verify the suspect’s statements

An interrogation should always be preceded with an interview which develops, among other things, investigative information such as the suspect’s alibi, possible motives for committing the crime, explanation for evidence, etc. The interrogation is conducted because the suspect lied about his alibi, motives or his explanations for evidence were not credible. Sometimes, after a suspect is accused of committing the crime, the suspect will offer additional or revised information. At this point the investigator may reject the suspect’s explanations and continue the interrogation under the presumption that the suspect is guilty of the crime. In other instances, the investigator may want to verify (or refute) the suspect’s explanation which requires leaving the interrogation room.

While outside the room the investigator can make a phone call, log onto the internet, or check records in an effort to verify the suspect’s statements. Under no circumstance, however, should the suspect be ignored and left alone for extended periods of time while this is being done. To do so will only result in resentment and, if left alone for too long, claims of duress. If the investigator is delayed for 20 or 30 minutes, a second person should let the suspect know that the investigator is waiting for information and offer the suspect the opportunity to use a restroom and perhaps have something drink.

(3) As an interrogation tactic

The final reason an investigator may leave the interrogation room is to set up a specific interrogation tactic. The first example involves introducing fictitious evidence during the interrogation. Consider that a homicide suspect has been interrogated for 90 minutes and is still denying any involvement in the crime, including being in the area where the victim was killed. The investigator does not find the suspect’s denials credible, and yet there is nothing beyond circumstantial evidence that links the suspect to the crime. Following the suspect’s denial, the investigator may tell the suspect, “Charlie, I’m willing to accept the possibility that maybe I was wrong and that you had nothing to do with this thing. There was a security camera across the street from where this happened and our forensic people have been looking at that for clues. They started a while ago and I’m going to step out of the room to see where things stand and whether or not they can verify that you weren’t there.”

After five or ten minutes the investigator returns to the room and, while holding physical “evidence” (fingerprint card, DVD, plastic bag with fibers, etc.), tells the suspect that the analysis of the evidence further implicates the suspect in the crime, and the interrogation continues. When introducing fictitious evidence, the investigator should carefully adhere to legal restrictions involving deceptive practices during an interrogation.

A second example also involves introducing evidence. Consider two brothers, Tim and Tom, who have both been arrested concerning a series of burglaries. The investigator may sit down with Tim, the “tougher” suspect, and ask innocuous questions about his brother. “Tell me about Tom; “What kind of music does he like?”: “Does he participate in sports?” etc.

Eventually, the investigator escorts Tim to the room where his brother is sitting. After opening the door, the investigator points his finger at Tom and asks Tim, “Is this the person you’ve been telling me about?” to which Tim says, “Yes.” The door is then closed and, after ten minutes or so the investigator re-enters Tom’s room and says, “Your brother decided to tell the truth about the homes you guys went into. Right now I don’t really need to talk to you about this because I have his statement. One thing, though, bothers me. He claims that this was all your idea and that you forced him to go along with you. I don’t know. He might be right. Is that true? Did you force him to do this with you?”

In conclusion, the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation is designed to elicit trustworthy confessions in an efficient manner. Because it is psychologically wrong, and legally risky, to force a suspect to sit alone in the interrogation room for extended periods of time, it is our general recommendation that investigators not leave the room once an interrogation has started. However, there are tactical reasons where it is acceptable to leave the interrogation room. The most important of these is when the investigator senses that he is losing his temper or emotional control – an investigator should never interrogate a suspect toward whom he feels anger or resentment.

This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy the article. For additional ‘tips’ visit www.reid.com; select ‘Educational Information’ and ‘Investigator Tip’. Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Janet Finnerty johnreid@htc.net. For more information regarding Reid seminars and training products, contact John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. at 800-255-5747 or www.reid.com.

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