A confession to a crime seems like a pretty solid piece of evidence, but there are times a confession can be tossed out of court.
Courts are very picky about what statements will be permitted as evidence if they're made outside the courtroom. Not only that, but there are certain kinds of statements that are legally protected and can't be used against you.
In run-ins with police, it's generally best to keep your mouth shut until you've talked to an attorney. But for the curious, here are some common situations in which confessions can't be admitted in court:
- Unlawful questioning. Before police can question you in relation to a crime, they must read you your Miranda rights so you know your legal protections. Any responses you give before those rights are read are generally not admissible. If you exercise your right to an attorney, police are expected to stop questioning you until one arrives. Tricking you into answering questions after you've made the request and before your attorney gets there doesn't make those statements admissible. They'd still generally be tossed out of court.
- Privileged statements. The law respects that certain relationships should be honest and it protects communications made in those relationships as private. Comments made during a religious confession, to your doctor for the purpose of diagnosis or treatment, to a lawyer, or to a spouse are generally considered privileged and can't be used in court. You can waive your right to this privilege, but if you don't then the statements stay private. Some courts have even found confessions made during Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to be privileged, as ABC News reported a few months ago.
- Involuntary or coerced statements. Law enforcement officers can't force you or trick you into confessing to a crime. To further discourage them from doing it, courts won't allow coerced confessions as evidence. If you're forced to confess against your will, tell your attorney as soon as possible so you can keep those statements out of court.
- Etan Patz Case: When Must You Report a Confession? (FindLaw's Blotter)
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- Man Makes Deathbed Confession, Then Recovers (FindLaw's Blotter)