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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh, How They Trick You

American Scofflaw

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden, in discussing the “balloon boy” hoax, inadvertently gave discerning CNN viewers a heads-up on police procedure.

Remember Detective Columbo’s little schtick? “Oh, there’s just one thing I still can’t figure out, sir….” “Just one more question, sir….”

Apparently that’s pretty close to reality. Here’s Alderden:

“Clearly, the only way that we were going to be able to bring this to a successful conclusion is if we got a confession. You know, we could speculate all we want, but we had to get somebody talking and somebody telling us what really happened. We developed a strategy to do that. It was very important during this time that they maintained their trust with us, that we maintained a very good relationship that we had established with the family. We had to say and do things to make sure that they believed that we were on their side still and try to just maintain that trust so that we could get them in here voluntarily in order to conduct our interview…. The obvious goal was to separate them, to interview them separately, hopefully be able to convince them to take a polygraph. Part of the theme of getting them to take a polygraph is this is the only way that they’re going to get the media feeding frenzy off of their back…. Mr. Heene voluntarily came in here under the pretext of we were going to return his aircraft to him. But before we could do that, we had a few questions that we needed to ask him and a few issues that we needed to clarify. He consented to come in…. Unbeknownst to him, at the same time, the minute he hit the door here, we had investigators prepared to go to the house and talk to Mrs. Heene and try to gain her cooperation, as well as conduct interviews with her and the children.”

In a press conference televised to millions of CNN viewers, he gave this simple message to anyone smart enough to read between the lines: Never trust a cop.

Let me stipulate that if, as seems likely, the balloon boy incident was a hoax, the guy who did it was a scumbag who needlessly wasted taxpayer money and perhaps jeopardized the safety of rescue personnel as well.

That being said, in any legal system—including a libertarian one—it should be considered repugnant to require a defendant to testify against himself. The burden should be on the prosecution (or rather, in a libertarian society, on the plaintiff who was actually harmed by an action) to amass evidence without the help—witting or unwitting—of the defendant.

And as we’ve seen in this incident, a major part of professional police culture is to figure out ways to get around common law due process protections: to trick people into forfeiting their protection against self-incrimination, to create a false pretext for a warrant, or even to create a false “probable cause” pretext for warrantless breaking and entering.

And another part of police procedure is to create false impressions about the reliability of forensic procedures, like the drug-sniffing abilities of police dogs (who in fact are probably just responding to conscious or unconscious cues a lot more often than than cops want to admit), or—as in this case—polygraph tests.

The fact that the police only showed up, unannounced, after they’d lured Heene to the police station, in order to question them separately, should have been enough to tell Mrs. Heene something was fishy. If their intentions were honest, they wouldn’t have blindsided her like that. Based on their clearly demonstrated adversarial intent, she should have refused to say a word and told her kids not to talk to police without their parents and an attorney present.

The cops created a deliberately misleading impression, confusing the Heenes with half-truths, to trick them into betraying themselves.

I wonder if the cops mentioned that polygraphs are inadmissible in most courts because of their unreliability. I wonder if they mentioned that it’s standard polygraph industry procedure to lie to subjects about how it works (namely, the real purpose of the baseline question).

A politically monopolized security industry works for the politically powerful. You’re not the customer. Since police lack competitors that could hold them accountable, you become a mostly defenseless means to responding to political incentives (in order to achieve the satisfaction of their own economic desires). Pending the dissolution of that monopoly, your best defense against predatory police is giving them as little to work with as possible.

Remember all this next time you deal with a cop. Any time a cop seems to be friendly and non-adversarial, to be “on your side” and just enabling you to “straighten things out” or “clear your name,” he’s probably trying to trick you into incriminating yourself. Don’t answer any questions, no matter how seemingly innocuous or trivial, and demand a lawyer immediately.

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