In The Mentalist S6 Ep 17 "Silver Wings of Time" they construct an elaborate deception to trick the real killer into confessing.

How realistic is this concept?
Can the police actually lie and trick people into confessing? I would have thought that lies and tricky would make confessions inadmissible in court.

  • 1
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about legal advice. You should speak to a lawyer.
    – user209
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:03
  • There is nowhere written that lying is crime! so yes police can do that. After all 'If one lie saves hundreds then its not a lie' Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:03
  • 2
    @Keen, I am querying the realism of the scene - is it any more off topic than any other question about TV realism?
    – Stefan
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:15
  • 1
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about realism of content which is unrelated to the show itself. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 18:01
  • 2
    But every question about movie and tv realism is by definition about realism of content. I don't see why this is any more off topic than other realism questions or question about historical accuracy etc.
    – Stefan
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 22:01

1 Answer 1


This would obviously appear to depend on the country in which the police are operating.

In the case of The Mentalist, this would be the United States and in particular California.

Based on some initial research of US laws and Californian laws, the answer seems to be: It Depends.

In People v. Mays (Docket No. C057099), a Californian case from 2009, the police attached a suspect to a fake polygraph machine (lie detector). They pretend to administer the test and told the suspect he had failed. As the suspect believed it was real, he admitted he had been at the scene of the crime. It was held that this form of lying was perfectly legal and the suspect's confession was admissible:

Police trickery that occurs in the process of a criminal interrogation does not, by itself, render a confession involuntary and violate the state or federal due process clause. Why? Because subterfuge is not necessarily coercive in nature. And unless the police engage in conduct which coerces a suspect into confessing, no finding of involuntariness can be made. So long as a police officer’s misrepresentations or omissions are not of a kind likely to produce a false confession, confessions prompted by deception are admissible in evidence.

This interesting blog article from Patrol Log discuss the consequences of this case, suggesting:

You can tell them that:

1) Their fingerprints or DNA match those taken from the crime scene, even if they don’t, or even if you don’t have any fingerprints or DNA evidence at all.

2) You have a video of their crime or a witness’s statement identifying them as the ones involved, even if this is not true.

3) If they have an accomplice, you can tell them that you already have the accomplice in custody, and they have already confessed, even if this isn’t true.

4) You can tell them that you found evidence of the crime in their vehicle or apartment, even if you haven’t.

According to Police Link:

The landmark decision regulating false statements made to a suspect is the U.S. Supreme Court case of Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731, 1969. The case involved the interrogation of a homicide suspect who was falsely told that an accomplice had already implicated the suspect in the killing. This lie persuaded the suspect to confess to the homicide. The Supreme Court ruled that such use of trickery and deceit can be permissible (depending on the totality of circumstances) provided that it does not shock the conscience of the court or community.

However, there are limits. This very recent article about NY rulings show some of the limits:

In a unanimous ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals tossed out the 2009 conviction of Adrian Thomas for the murder of his infant son, finding that Troy, N.Y., police had overstepped their prerogative to use artifice when they told Mr. Thomas that his son, who was brain-dead, was alive and could be saved with his confession, among numerous other falsehoods.

So the answer appears to be: The police can lie in some cases.

However, it should be noted this information has come from a smattering of different sources and should not be trusted on as actual legal advice. For that, you should contact a lawyer.

  • 1
    Ah, so the idea is realistic enough to not actually be 'wrong' as such. Fascinating, I did not realise. Thanks for the links, too. No legal advice required, merely idle curiosity (and background info for an RPG game)
    – Stefan
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:17
  • 1
    the general idea in US districts (again, not from a lawyer) is that they can lie about things so long as an innocent suspect would be unlikely to change their story due to the deception; in the NY case cited above, there was concern that, even if he were innocent, the father might falsely confess to save his son. Contrast that with, say, claiming they have your fingerprints at a crime scene you know you've never been to -- a truly innocent suspect is unlikely to "fall for" that kind of ruse.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 22:55
  • Yeah, that makes sense. I can imagine if I were being interrogated and they asked me to explain how they found my finger prints at a crime scene I would respond with "no idea, I've never been there" rather than something like "okay, I lied I was there earlier but I did not do the crime" but if my son's life was in the balance I would say pretty much anything.
    – Stefan
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 8:33
  • @KutuluMike "Contrast that with, say, claiming they have your fingerprints at a crime scene you know you've never been to -- a truly innocent suspect is unlikely to "fall for" that kind of ruse." Except, of course, that they are. Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 22:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .