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NJ Supreme Court: Confession not Voluntary Where Police Tell Suspect Truth Would Set Him Free, Promise Him Counseling Instead of Jail, and Minimize Seriousness of Offenses

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a confession is not voluntary when police induce a suspect to confess by saying to him, “Telling the truth will set you free,” assuring him he will not go to jail but instead will receive counseling and minimizing the seriousness of his offenses.

Defendant “L.H.” was arrested and transported to Bloomfield police headquarters at 2:30 a.m. At 5:31 a.m., detectives Joseph Krentz and Thomas Fano of the Bloomfield Police Department interrogated “L.H.” concerning two sexual assaults and one attempted sexual assault. For the first hour, L.H. denied knowledge of the incidents but admitted he had a prior conviction for a consensual sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female. He also told the detectives he was 26 years old, had an associate’s degree, and was rearing a young daughter.

Then Fano said to L.H., “You need some help dude. You got a problem.” Krentz added, “We want to get you the help that you need.” For the next 20 minutes, the two detectives promised L.H. no fewer than 10 times that if he cooperated and incriminated himself he would receive counseling and help, not go to jail, and remain free to raise his child. They told him, “You gotta be honest.” Fano told L.H., “The truth is going to set you free. The truth — and it is a true saying, the truth will set you free.”

When L.H. asked, “Am I going to jail tonight?” Krentz replied, “No, no, not at all.” L.H. told the detectives that when he made an incriminating statement regarding the 16-year-old female, he went straight to jail. The detectives told him this time was different and that he was not going to jail. Then the detectives told L.H. he wasn’t a bad person, that he “didn’t hurt anybody ... didn’t rob anybody ... didn’t beat them up.” The interrogation lasted three hours, and at one point, L.H. stated he was “tired as hell.” L.H. eventually made admissions about his involvement in the sexual assaults and attempted sexual assault. L.H. was indicted on 12 offenses, including four counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault.

He moved to suppress, arguing the detectives induced the confession by making false promises that he would not face jail time, thus overwhelming his will and rendering his confession involuntary. The trial court denied his motion. L.H. entered a conditional guilty plea, preserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the State had failed to prove that the confession was voluntary. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for review.

The Court observed “[t]he right against self-incrimination is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and this State’s common law now embodied in statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-19.” To protect this right from psychological pressures inherent in a police dominated atmosphere, the U.S. Supreme Court has prescribed a set of warnings the police must give a suspect prior to interrogation, i.e., “he has the right to remain silent” and “that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law.” Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

In New Jersey, the State bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant’s waiver of rights was made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. State v. Nyhammer, 963 A.2d 316 (N.J. 2009). Due process also requires the State “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant’s confession was voluntary and was not made because the defendant’s will was overborne.” State v. Hreha, 89 A.3d 1223 (N.J. 2014). “The due process test takes into consideration ‘the totality of all the surrounding circumstances — both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation.’” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).

Factors relevant to voluntariness analysis include the suspect’s age, education, and intelligence; advice concerning constitutional rights; length of detention; whether the questioning was repeated and prolonged in nature; whether physical punishment and mental exhaustion were involved; and previous encounters with law enforcement. Id. A confession that is the product of physical or psychological coercion must be considered involuntary and inadmissible into evidence regardless of its truth or falsity. State v. Miller, 388 A.2d 218 (N.J. 1978).

Officers are permitted to tell some lies during an interrogation to overcome a suspect’s “natural reluctance” to incriminate himself. Id. But certain lies may have the capacity to overbear a suspect’s will and render a confession involuntary. State ex rel. A.S., 999 A.2d 1136 (N.J. 2010). A police officer cannot imply that a suspect’s statements will not be used against him because that contravenes the Miranda warnings. Id. A confession can be involuntary if it was induced by promises of leniency. Hreha.

The Court determined that the detectives made representations that contravened the Miranda warnings when they told L.H. “the truth would set [him] free,” implying his statements would not be used against him. Also, the promise of counseling in lieu of jail was an impermissible promise of leniency that overbore L.H.’s will. And while L.H. was college educated and had experience with law enforcement due to his prior conviction, these factors were negated when the detectives told him this time was different and then minimized the seriousness of his offenses. L.H. was held in a cell for three hours prior to the interrogation that lasted another three hours. The time period was 2:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m., and L.H.’s expression of being tired could be evidence of mental exhaustion. (The record did not reveal when L.H. last slept because the detectives failed to ask him.) The Court concluded that based on the totality of the circumstances, the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the confession was voluntary.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division and ordered that L.H.’s guilty plea must be vacated. See: State v. L.H., 215 A.3d 516 (N.J. 2019).

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