A room about 10 square feet. A mirror embedded into an off-white wall. In the center, a small rectangular table and two chairs. High in one corner, near the ceiling, hangs the unmistakable glass-covered dome of a surveillance camera. Also occupying the room are two detectives and one defiant subject with shrinking confidence. One could not help but know this is a police interrogation room. Or is it an interview room? Or does it matter?
The terms interview and interrogation are often incorrectly used interchangeably, even among law enforcement officers. While in other facets of society, the difference may not mean much, in the legal world, particularly during police/citizen encounters, the distinction is heavily weighted in Constitutional importance.
In the argot of the police, an interview occurs when an officer asks questions during a consensual encounter. In other words, when the person being interviewed is free to leave and is not being detained.
Examples of a police interview:
- A police officer wants to talk to a person to see if they are committing any crimes.
No evidence exists yet and there is no legal justification for the officer to detain the person. Essentially, the officer is just trying to start a conversation and see where it goes. Such an encounter might begin when the officer says to a person, “Hey man. Can I talk to you for a minute?” If the person agrees, an interview has commenced.
- A victim provides a statement to the police.
When an officer or detective is talking to the victim of a crime, they are conducting another type of interview. For instance, a man whose credit card number was stolen resulting in fraudulent charges on his account would need to be interviewed by the police for an investigation to begin. Pretty straightforward, and obviously consensual.
- The police will want to talk to anyone who may have seen or heard specific details of a crime.
This type of interview involves talking to witnesses, who can fall into several categories. An eyewitness is one who observed a crime take place, such as a bank teller who can describe a robbery suspect. A similar type of interview may occur with an expert witness. These could include forensic scientists, accountants, medical doctors, or engineers. An expert witness will most often testify about their particular specialty and how it might relate to a crime or a suspect.
An interrogation, on the other hand, takes the interview to the next level. More specifically, the circumstances under which the interview is occurring change proverbial levels. The interrogation title applies when the person being questioned is not free to leave. That does not necessarily mean they are under arrest, simply that they are legally detained, at least for the moment.
This restriction of freedom at the hands of the police triggers the notification of certain Constitutional protections from the 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona. The detained subject should soon hear the familiar passage starting with, “You have the right to remain silent.”
An important caveat to note here: some interpret any restriction of freedom, such as being temporarily detained, as an arrest. For this discussion, however, an arrest will constitute one being in handcuffs, riding in a police car, and being booked into jail.
Examples of police interrogation:
- A police officer wants to talk to someone because they have reason to believe that person may be involved in criminal activity.
Unlike the interview example, this goes beyond mere curiosity on the part of the officer. Instead, he or she must have reasonable suspicion to detain a suspect. This may start with a statement similar to, “Stop! I want to talk to you.” This demand makes it clear the person is not free to leave. Any exchange that follows is an interrogation.
- It is important to recognize that courts have traditionally held that the interpretation of one’s freedom must be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person under similar conditions.
In this example, an officer is interviewing someone, in other words, it is a consensual encounter and the person is free to leave. However, during the interview, the subject admits to a serious crime, a murder. At that point, even before the officer puts them in handcuffs, a reasonable person should know they are not free to leave. The interrogation phase has begun.
- Vague statements from the police can also play a role in the perception a person has concerning their ability to walk away.
For instance, an officer may be unclear in her initial approach and say something such as, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you.” The officer may later testify that she did not give an order for the subject to stop, she simply said she wanted to talk to him. However, a reasonable person may perceive such a statement, especially when considering tone, as an order from a law enforcement officer and believe his or her freedom is now restricted. Courts may interpret any questioning from that point on as an interrogation.
There is an abundance of factors that go into police/citizen encounters. The sheer number of apelet court cases stands as evidence of the complexity of these encounters. Even the most professional police officers on the street or the highly experienced detectives in an interrogation room cannot possibly account for every nuance of a conversation.
Law enforcement officers are trained to know the difference between an interview and an interrogation. In other words, when they have to read someone their rights. Traditionally, they do an excellent job at identifying this distinction, and rightly so, since it has a significant Constitutional bearing. When the details of the situation are blurred, it is up to the courts to make the final determination: Was the encounter was voluntary, constituting an interview? Or was one’s freedom was restricted, making any questioning an interrogation?
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