Confessions and the Constitution: The Remedy for Violating Constitutional Safeguards

Article excerpt

Law enforcement officers investigating criminal activity within the United States have increasing amounts of technology to assist them in identifying those responsible for criminal conduct. Advances in DNA collection and testing, automated fingerprint identification, and a multitude of forensic techniques are only a few examples of the scientific tools available to the modern criminal investigator. (1) However, despite all of the physical evidence collected in a particular case and all of the scientific analysis used to tie an individual to the commission of a crime, one nonscientific technique continues to play an important role in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity: the confession. Confessions made to law enforcement officers continue to hold significant importance within the criminal justice process. Law enforcement officers seek to obtain confessions from individuals suspected of criminal activity even when the physical, scientific, or other evidence against an individual is over-whelming. Criminal defendants, faced with the possibility that their confessions may be used by the prosecution at trial, seek to keep their confessions out of court through legal challenges. Both parties recognize the continued influence of the words uttered by criminal defendants on a judge or a jury. There is something powerful in the words that describe the particular events, as well as the thoughts, actions, emotions, or motives, that would otherwise remain hidden and undiscovered from any scientific or forensic test. In 1961, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter made the following statement about confessions that still rings true today:


  Despite modern advances in the technology of crime detection,
  offenses frequently occur about which things cannot be made to
  speak. And where there cannot be found innocent human witnesses
  to such offenses, nothing remains--if police investigation is not
  to be balked before it has fairly begun--but to seek out possibly
  guilty witnesses and ask them questions, witnesses, that is, who
  are suspected of knowing something about the offense precisely
  because they are suspected of implication in it. (2)


It is when the police officer "seek[s] out possibly guilty witnesses and ask[s] them questions" (3) that the law surrounding confessions must be considered. Because confessions and interrogations are such a recognized and longstanding tool in law enforcement, articles about all aspects of the topic abound. Less frequently addressed, however, is a discussion of the legal effect of obtaining a confession in violation of constitutional safeguards. Because obtaining a confession can implicate different constitutional rights, answering this question involves identifying the particular constitutional safeguard involved--typically a right found within the Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution--and then understanding the remedy that each provision imposes for a violation.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court decided three cases that involved confessions obtained in violation of constitutional safeguards. And, in each of these cases, the Supreme Court has made one thing clear: the Constitution imposes different remedies for different violations. Law enforcement officers must be aware of these issues and can find guidance in these Supreme Court cases involving confessions. Armed with this information, law enforcement officers can properly understand the implications of obtaining confessions in violation of constitutional safeguards.

The Fourth Amendment

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. ..." (4) Expressly contained within its first sentence, the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures are familiar terms to law enforcement officers. …