Police Deception

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

In the complex world of law enforcement, police officers sometimes use deception to solve cases and bring criminals to justice. Deception can take various forms, such as undercover agents pretending to be criminals or officers lying about the evidence they have. However, just like with informants, there are legal boundaries to ensure fairness and protect the rights of individuals.

Deception and Entrapment: Setting the Limits

In the landmark Supreme Court case Sherman v. United States (1958), the issue of entrapment was brought into sharp focus. Entrapment happens when police officers induce a person to commit a crime that the person would not have committed otherwise. In Sherman, the Court held that entrapment occurs when the criminal conduct was “the product of the creative activity” of law enforcement officials.

Another important case, Frazier v. Cupp (1969), dealt with police deception during interrogations. The Supreme Court ruled that a little lie by the police about the evidence they had did not automatically render a confession invalid. However, the Court cautioned that whether a confession is voluntary depends on the “totality of the circumstances,” including the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation.

Deception and the Fourth Amendment: Searching for Clarity

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. In Illinois v. Perkins (1990), the Supreme Court addressed whether police deception violated this constitutional right. In this case, an undercover officer posed as an inmate and listened to the accused’s voluntary confession without reading him his rights. The Court held that because the accused was not in a coercive situation, his Fourth Amendment rights were not violated.

Deception in Police Interrogations

During police interrogations, officers often employ deception as a strategy to elicit confessions. However, there are rules to this practice that stems from the Fifth Amendment, which protects individuals from self-incrimination, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law. The legality of deception depends on whether it is likely to elicit a false confession or whether it unduly coerces a suspect into waiving their rights.

One landmark case that discussed this issue is Miranda v. Arizona (1966). This case established that police must inform suspects of their rights before interrogation, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The Miranda ruling aims to prevent coerced confessions, which deceptive tactics could potentially facilitate.

However, in Frazier v. Cupp (1969), the Supreme Court permitted some level of deception during interrogations, ruling that a minor lie by police did not automatically render a confession invalid. The Court held that the “totality of circumstances” must be considered when assessing the validity of a confession.

The Supreme Court, therefore, allows police deception during interrogations but also places limits on this practice to prevent coerced or false confessions. The challenge for law enforcement lies in striking a balance between effective investigations and upholding constitutional rights.


To sum up, police deception, while a powerful tool in law enforcement, must operate within legal and constitutional boundaries. From entrapment laws to Fourth Amendment protections, the Supreme Court has set out guidelines to ensure that the pursuit of justice does not compromise the rights of the individual. Therefore, understanding these principles is essential for law enforcement officers, attorneys, and students of criminal justice.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2023

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