Are the police allowed to lie to me?

Most of us grow up being told that the policeman is our friend. We are not taught that he would lie to us. Some think that the police are not allowed to lie. This is so ingrained that even drug dealers believe it. This is why police reports and surveillance audios so often reveal a drug dealer asking a customer:

Dealer: “Are you a cop?”
Buyer: “No.”
Dealer: “OK.”

Busted. Yes, it’s true, the police are usually allowed to lie to citizens when they are fighting crime.


Lying about giving a statement:

If a suspect is arrested by the police, the police must BEGIN with a little straight honest talk. They read the person his Miranda rights:

 

 

 

After that, they can lie to and deceive a suspect in order to get a confession. And they can go pretty far before the court will draw the line and declare such confession to be coerced or involuntary. The police might tell a suspect:

  • That an accomplice implicated them in the crime.
  • That eyewitnesses have identified them as committing the crime.
  • That they have other evidence that they do not really have, such as fingerprints.

I’ve seen police who don’t want to lie outright, will only suggest that he has such evidence. Knowing he has no fingerprints or surveillance video, he will ask the suspect to explain how his prints or picture might turn up. Then there is the old story of the interrogator who hooks the suspect up to a copy machine. Then every time the detective pushes the button the machine prints out a “report” that says: “He’s lying.”

But they can’t lie about everything:

One thing police cannot do is mislead a suspect regarding the consequences of confessing. If an officer tells a suspect that his statement cannot be used against him or will not result in charges, one can easily see that contradicts the Miranda warning that the officer gave earlier.


Lying about getting consent to search:

Sometimes the police want to get into a suspect’s home. They want to look around, but do not have enough evidence to get a search warrant. Lying to the homeowner is one of his tools. An undercover police officer can come to the suspected drug dealer’s house, posing as a buyer. If he is allowed inside on that basis, he may seize evidence or find enough other evidence to get a search warrant. The undercover cop might get in by knocking and asking to use a phone. These deceptions have been allowed by courts to get consent to enter.

One thing the police cannot do is go beyond the actual consent to enter. The undercover cop–invited inside to buy drugs or use the phone–cannot then start nosing around in closets and drawers. They may not get into a building by claiming authority that they do not have. That would immediately destroy the voluntariness of the consent.

There is also no voluntary consent to enter when the homeowner allows a police officer to enter because the officer has falsely claimed to have a legal right to enter. The same would apply where a government agent claims a false emergency, perhaps by posing as a gas company employee.

“Lying to the FBI” Go ahead. Google it.

What do vice-presidential chief of staff “Scooter” Libby, homemaking guru Martha Stewart, and former housing secretary Henry Cisneros have in common? They were all prosecuted by the federal government for making false statements to government agents. If you googled the above quote, you know that the number of people prosecuted for this crime are beyond counting (well, beyond reading all the search engine matches, anyway.)

Every time I hear about one of these prosecutions, I ask myself: “Why would anybody, anywhere, anytime talk to the FBI?” Of course they want to scare people into telling the truth, but it seems to me that reasonable people might be scared out of talking to them at all.

Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 says that if one lies or knowingly conceals any material fact about a matter within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government, he shall be fined or imprisoned for not more than 5 years.

It also makes it a crime for a government agent to lie to you. Scratch that. In fact, your government applies a far higher moral standard to its citizens than to itself, for law enforcement officers are trained to lie when interviewing suspects. They can lie about what evidence they have or what the evidence will tell them. They can lie about what other witnesses have said. Trust me. It is standard practice.


Under Missouri law, it’s not so one-sided. A man may be convicted of committing a theft, but he won’t be convicted of denying that he did it. He won’t be convicted for saying he doesn’t know anything about it. He won’t be convicted for hiding embarrassing personal facts.

Under Missouri law, lying to the state is a crime only in certain narrow situations. Such as:

  • lying for the purpose of helping another person escape prosecution
  • making a false statement UNDER OATH, or
  • making a false report of a crime or life-threatening emergency.

These situations adequately cover the immediate public harm caused by not telling the government the truth. But these state laws stop short of the police state mentality which demands that citizens cooperate with the government in all things, even to the point of helping the government put them in prison.

The bottom line is that these state laws do not punish a man for denying his own guilt. This is akin to the 5th amendment to the US constitution which insures that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

Of course, one should never lie to the authorities, whether they be state or federal. The feds will send you to prison for the lie, even though they could never charge you with any other crime. Even your local police know that the best thing they can get from a suspect is a confession. But the second best thing they can get is a lie. You will not outsmart them. They will never tell you how much they know already.

If the FBI ever showed up wanting to interview me, I should politely, but firmly tell them I would not discuss the matter until I’ve talked to an attorney about it. I can’t get in trouble with that response. After some thought and legal counsel, it may appear that I have no personal criminal exposure. But I can’t make that judgment going into a surprise interview. I may well talk to them later, BUT NOT NOW.

Perhaps if enough people just started refusing to speak to federal government agents–because they feared saying something that could come back to bite them–Congress might have to repeal the law. The agents could then concentrate on solving crimes that have already occurred rather than manufacturing them in the ordinary course of business.

Resources:

The police want to talk to me. Should I talk to them?

How to Avoid Going to Jail under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 for Lying to Government Agents (its a long one, but you will be amazed at how wrong people can be in thinking they are innocent and have nothing to hide)