Most people know that the police interview suspects at the police station, but why do we do it and what actually happens?
This is my take on suspect interviewing, from my perspective as a member of the CID in a Home Office force.
Why we interview suspects:
Suspects are interviewed for two main reasons; to give them a chance to give a version of events about their suspected involvement in an offence, and to put to them the evidence we have so that they have a chance to comment on it.
What is said by a suspect in their interview can alter how an investigation progresses. If a suspect says they have an alibi (ie – they weren’t at the crime scene, they were elsewhere) then this has to be checked. If they say they were at or near a crime scene but they didn’t commit the crime, then depending on what other evidence we have this may be difficult to disprove, and the suspect’s bad character (ie – have they done a similar crime before) is likely to become more relevant.
Suspects occasionally make full and frank admissions, but this happens far less often than people probably think, especially when dealing with serious and complex offences where jail time is likely. Of the many suspects I’ve known who’ve gone on to enter early guilty pleas at court, far more deny the offence or “no comment” in interview than ever admit to us what they’ve done.
What actually happens:
Before an interview I plan and prepare. I’ll read and view the material we have, and write an interview plan. This includes the areas I want to discuss with the suspect and the ‘points to prove’ of the offence under investigation. If I fail to ask the right questions, then the value of the interview if later used in court could be diminished.
Sometimes I may only want to ask the suspect for an account (a ‘non-challenge’ interview) when, for example, the investigation is in its early stages or material is still being gathered. A ‘challenge’ interview is when I plan on putting to the suspect evidence that suggests guilt, to see what they have to say about it.
If the suspect has opted to have legal representation, I will also prepare some form of disclosure for the legal representative. This is information that we give to the legal representative before they meet the suspect that they are representing.
The appeal courts have repeatedly stated that we the police don’t have to disclose anything, but I always try to give sufficient so that the suspect has an appreciation of how they have come to be suspected of involvement. By doing this I hope to suggest to them (and their legal representative) that they have a case to answer, which I hope will encourage them to give an account or answer my questions, rather than going “no comment”. What I never do is spell out exactly what’s linked them, as this would assist them in coming up with an account to fit around the evidence. It’s a balancing act.
If they have a legal representative, the suspect always gets to speak with them privately before we begin the interview (I’ve always wondered what’s said in these conversations!). The suspect in fact has a right to speak to their legal representative in private whenever they like, even mid-interview.
The interview begins. We start the tapes or digital recording equipment (every interview is recorded this way), and then everybody present is asked to introduce themselves. The time, date and location of the interview is stated. We remind the suspect of their legal rights (even if they’re legally represented) and state and explain the caution, usually asking a few questions to check that they understand it.
There are a couple of variations of the caution, but the one used most often is what you’ve probably seen on TV many times before; “You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”.
The caution is in essence a warning to the suspect, given to them by law, which means the following:
- They don’t have to answer our questions, speak to us, or even speak at all,
- It may do them more harm than good at court if they don’t mention in the interview something they bring up at court for the first time,
- It may similarly do them more harm than good at court if their account changes between the interview and the courtroom,
- If they do choose to say anything, it could be read out in court from a transcript, or the recording of the interview could be played back.
This is a very basic explanation of the caution. What can and can’t actually go on to harm their defence at court can be quite technical and varies case by case.
We then ask the questions we need to ask, and the suspect can say the things that they would like to say. Sometimes, in what I think is often a tactical move encouraged by legal representatives, a suspect will give a ‘prepared statement’. This is usually spoken by them or their legal representative at the start of the interview, and they will give their account before going on to reply “no comment” to all further questions. This way, they can get across their version of events without having to answer questions which they may not be fully prepared for.
At the end of the interview the time is again stated, the recording is stopped, and if tapes are used one is sealed as a master copy using a seal signed by everybody present. The suspect is also given a notice about their rights of access to a copy of the recording, should they be charged or otherwise told that they will be prosecuted.
By Officer Y
See Part II soon.