Confessions, Involuntary

Why does it matter whether a confession is voluntary?

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman Defense Lawyer
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman Defense Lawyer

How reliable is information obtained under torture?  Will the victim of torture say whatever he or she thinks the torturer wants to hear, to make it stop – “to move forward?”

Laws concerning involuntary statements and confessions go back to ancient Rome, and beyond.  American common law, is derived from British common law, which in turn was partly derived from Roman common law.  Roman law had even older predecessors, including the laws of ancient Athens, Macedonia and Greece.  That’s about as common as law gets.

Today, in Minnesota, the law remains that involuntary statements and confessions are unreliable and inadmissible in a trial.  As is the case with much of the Common Law, this has been partially encoded into Minnesota Statutes, as we shall soon discuss.

Compared to Miranda:  First though, let’s compare voluntariness with the more recent development of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), which held that both statements made in response to questioning by an accused in police custody are admissible at trial only if the government can show that the accused was informed of the rights to consult with an attorney before questioning and against self-incrimination, and that the accused not only understood these rights, but voluntarily waived them.

The voluntariness of a confession is an issue separate from the Miranda issue.  The Miranda warning is better known today, thanks to the publicity the case received since its 1966 publication by the U.S. Supreme Court.  But the voluntariness law is more powerful and more important than the Miranda case, beyond its deep and ancient roots in the laws of humankind.

The key differences between the two could be simplified:

Public Policy: Remedy:
Miranda: Deter police misconduct Exclusionary Rule
Voluntariness Law: Reliability (Truth) Complete Suppression
Deceased being weighed against his own heart
Deceased being weighed against his own heart

Burden of proving voluntariness:     The state has the burden of proving by a fair preponderance of the evidence that a confession was freely and voluntarily made.  “A confession is not voluntary if the actions of the police, combined with the circumstances, are so coercive and intimidating that the defendant is unable to make a free-will decision.  The actions of police need not be threats or deliberate intimidation to be coercive.” M.A.K., 667 N.W.2d 467 (2003).

An inculpatory statement is only admissible if it is voluntarily given.  See Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936); State v. Biron, 266 Minn. 272, 123 N.W.2d 392 (1963).

Unreliable evidence is misleading. Umbrellas in the sun.
Unreliable evidence is misleading. Umbrellas in the sun.

Totality of Circumstances:  When determining whether a confession was voluntary, the court should consider the totality of the relevant circumstances, including factors such as the age, maturity, intelligence, education, experience, and ability to comprehend.  A confession must not be extracted by threats or obtained via direct or implicit promisesMalloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1 (1964); Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532 (1897).

From the Defendant’s Point-of-View:  Whether the confession was voluntary should be determined by the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the confession.  The court must review the facts surrounding the confession, determine how the defendant responded to these circumstances, and decide whether the confession should then be found involuntary.  See Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 603 (1961).

Common Law — “Cannot Be Given in Evidence:”  An involuntary statement must be suppressed under Minn. Stat. §634.03, for all purposes, including impeachment, at trial.  Minn. Stat. §634.03 titled “Confession, inadmissible when,” is a Minnesota Statutes codifying the common law going back thousands of years, predating constitutional law, and continuing to date.  It provides as follows:

“A confession of the defendant shall not be sufficient to warrant conviction without evidence that the offense charged has been committed; nor can it be given in evidence against the defendant whether made in the course of judicial proceedings or to a private person, when made under the influence of fear produced by threats.” 

Under the law and this statute, the statement cannot be used for any purpose (“nor can it be used in evidence”), even impeachment (unlike the exclusionary rule).

One of the most important reasons for the common law, from ancient times to date, and Constitutional protections regarding limiting confessions, is that involuntary confessions are often unreliable.  Even in cases where involuntary confessions have been corroborated, they have been suppressed because of the general evil of allowing involuntary confessions (general deterrence), and the consequent increased risk of false confessions, and inaccurate (hearsay) reports of confessions.

No “in custody” requirement:  Note that it does not matter whether the circumstances crossed the involuntary statement was taken while “in custody.”  It doesn’t matter whether “in custody” or not – unlike Miranda.

No “state actor” requirement:  Also unlike Miranda, state action is not required for application of this common law rule.  Its purpose is not to deter police misconduct.  Its time-honored purpose is to improve the reliability of testimony and evidence by excluding unreliable, involuntary statements.