A home under renovation in Clarke County was burglarized and approximately fifty items related to the renovation was stolen. Two days later, police got in a car chase near this renovated house. The occupants of the car crashed and fled on foot but inside of the vehicle were items taken from the burglary. Other items in the car led them to a shed where the rest of the stolen items were recovered. Cynthia Burford was living in the shed with a man named Dunnigan and both were charged with burglary. The cases were severed.
After being Mirandized, the officers and case managers made several threats and promises to Burford before she confessed. One officer repeatedly told Burford that she was facing a high bond but that, if she confessed, he would seek a lower bond for her. The case manager told her that she needed to be honest with the officer because he could recommend the maximum sentence and, if he did so, she would receive the maximum.
Both the officer and the case manager told Burford that if she did not cooperate, she would remain in jail, she would not be released on bond, and her children would be taken away. Another officer told Burford that if she were honest, she would get a lower bond. After those statements were made to Burford, she confessed to being an accomplice to burglary, and she signed a written statement to that effect. She was convicted of burglary and sentenced to 15 years. MSC reversed the conviction.
A defendant’s confession may be allowed into evidence only where the trial judge finds the confession was intelligently, knowingly, and voluntarily made, rather than bargained for with promises, threats, or inducements by law enforcement officers. The trial court must determine from the totality of the circumstances whether the confession was the product of the accused’s free and rational choice.
If a confession is the result of threat, inducements or promises—however slight—it is not voluntary, and it is inadmissible under the constitutional standards. The test of whether an inducement is sufficient to render a confession involuntary is whether the promise or inducement is of a nature calculated under the circumstances to induce a confession irrespective of its truth or falsity.
Exhortations by police for the suspect to “tell the truth” or to “come clean” are allowed. But attempts by law enforcement officers to induce a confession by promising to obtain a bond or a lighter sentence for the accused are impermissible. This court has held that a defendant’s unrefuted testimony that a district attorney promised leniency in exchange for his cooperation rendered a confession inadmissible.
In Clash v. State, 112 So. 370 (1927), a private citizen testified that no threats or promises had been made to the defendant to induce his confession except that “if he would tell us about the money, and return it, we would let him out of jail on bond.” This court held that the promise to release the defendant from jail on bond was a sufficient inducement to render the confession involuntary.
This court has long adhered to the rule that when the offer of reward or hope of leniency is made by a private individual the same rule applies. Threatening the defendant with a greater penalty if she does not confess likewise can constitute an improper inducement.
In Abram v. State, 606 So. 2d 1015 (1992), a minister told the defendant that “a confession was in his best interest” and that “it might be easier on him if he cooperated.” Then a sheriff stressed the benefits of cooperating, including a chance for mercy, in contrast with the consequences of not cooperating, namely, the death penalty. This court held “that the various statements and impressions conveyed to Abram proximately caused him to confess” and that his confession had been involuntary.
Based on the threats of not seeing her children and the promise of lower bond made by both the police and the case manager, MSC reversed the conviction.
So how do you handle a person asking you if they can get out if they talk to you now or can they get a deal? This is what I would say…I am the police in this case not the prosecutor nor the Judge. I can’t make any promises like that to you. What I can and will do if you cooperate today is tell the prosecutor how much you helped in this investigation. The prosecutor decides the appropriate (if any) charges to be brought in a case. The Judge sets the bond amount with input from the prosecutor. Keep it professional and factual.