How does a court determine if the confession or statement is given voluntarily?
In 15th century England, courts and law officers often obtained confessions to crimes by torture and violence. Eventually, in response to these abuses, English courts held that persons ought not to be put on trial for a crime and compelled to answer incriminating questions until after they had been properly accused by grand jury. In the United States, defendants in criminal cases can be convicted only on reliable, relevant evidence. To be admissible, confessions and statements must be made voluntarily and freely.
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Confessions are normally accepted only if the defendant has been read his rights under Miranda vs. Arizona which formally advises him of his rights under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Any waiver of those rights is normally made in writing. At any point in criminal proceedings, the defendant has the right to challenge his confession if he believes he was coerced. It is then up to the trial judge to determine if the defendant did in fact freely and knowingly waive his right to remain silent and to be represented by counsel.
Courts have the option to reject a plea of guilty if they believe that the plea or confession was coerced in any fashion. Pleas of guilty are accepted only if the Court is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the plea is entered into voluntarily, freely and without fear or dread of any person or persons whatsoever.
When a defendant indicates to the Court that he wishes to enter a plea of guilty, the trial judge asks the defendant a number of questions regarding his mental state, (often including his sobriety); if any promises were made to secure his guilty plea, if he/she is pleading guilty because he/she is in fact guilty, and is often asked to allocute--that is to formally describe in detail--the offense which was committed. He is entitled to counsel during this time, and if he has counsel, is normally asked in open court if he is satisfied with the services rendered by his attorney. If he has no attorney, he is offered the services of an attorney at no cost to him/her if he/she cannot retain an attorney voluntarily. ONLY after the court is satisfied that the plea is voluntary and freely entered into will the Court accept it.
Needless to say, most guilty pleas are accompanied by a plea bargain. Still, the defendant has the right to reject the offered bargain and is typically encouraged not to accept a plea deal if he/she is not in fact guilty. In many jurisdictions, the trial judge is not obligated to accept a plea deal, and the defendant is normally advised of that fact also.
In the event a defendant later claims that the plea was coerced, one has the right to post conviction relief on that basis or on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.
The essence of the voluntary confession rule is based upon the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule which forces a suppression hearing anytime someone claims the confession is invalid, the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the 14th Amendment due process requirement. Together these make up the basis for the “voluntary confession rule” which is a two-pronged test to determine whether the defendant gave his/her confession voluntarily and without coercion. The free & voluntary rule is a two-prong test involving subjective and objective factors much like a totality of circumstances test. One part of the test focuses upon the susceptibility of the suspect, and the other part of the test focuses upon the environment & methods used.
To determine susceptibility of the subject the court may review the education, intellect and mental condition of the suspect along with any prior experience with the legal system. The court will also determine whether the environment may have been a factor in getting a false confession. Those factors include the location of the setting, length, intensity and frequency of the questioning. The court will also examine whether food or sleep deprivation was involved in obtaining the confession. Each possibly relevant factor must be evaluated in the context of each specific case.
There is no hard and fast rule for any of the factors absent abuse and torture in regards to confessions. Each factor will be weighed against the susceptibility of the suspect. Each possibly relevant factor must be evaluated in the context of each specific case.
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