Study connects sleep deprivation with false confessions

Arizona residents may be familiar with research linking false confessions with a controversial law enforcement tactics such as the Reid technique. This type of high-pressure approach is employed by police officers when they are dealing with uncooperative and truculent suspects, but poorly educated or mentally challenged individuals may sometimes confess to crimes that they did not commit just to put an end to the questioning.

Police sometimes place stubborn suspects under additional stress by preventing them from resting or sleeping, and a study has now also linked this tactic to false confessions. Researchers from Michigan State University compared how sleep-deprived and well-rested individuals handled an interrogation. The researchers found that the subjects who had not slept were more than four times more prone to make a false confession than those who had rested for eight hours.

While simply being deprived of sleep led to a false confession about 50 percent of the time, researchers pointed out that the rate was even higher among those with low IQs or learning difficulties. The researchers suggested that police interviews be recorded whenever possible to provide judges and juries with a more complete picture. According to the study, the number of false confessions could also be reduced if suspects were administered standard tests prior to being questioned.

Law enforcement is a difficult job, and working to keep the public safe while respecting the protections established by the U.S. Constitution raises a number of thorny moral and ethical questions. Experienced criminal defense attorneys will generally insist on being present when their clients are questioned. Defense attorneys may seek to prevent police officers from developing rapport and empathy with those being questioned by objecting to questions or putting an end to conversations that are not directly related to the crime being investigated.