Study finds sleep deprivation may promote false confessions

Sleep-deprived people may be likelier to give false confessions, which has troubling implications for innocent people who face prolonged interrogation.

Confessing to a crime despite being innocent may seem incomprehensible to many people in Harrisonburg. However, research shows that such false confessions are sometimes a common factor in the state obtaining a conviction against an innocent person. According to The Guardian, as many as one out of four wrongful convictions involve the use of what can be considered a "false confession". Research now suggests that the sleep deprivation that can occur during prolonged or late-night interrogations may be a significant factor in obtaining these confessions.

Dangerous impairments

Sleep deprivation is known to cause irrational thinking, issues with memory and even hallucinations. According to The Washington Post, one study also found that sleep-deprived people were more vulnerable to developing false memories. All of these factors make false confessions a risk when people are interrogated while exhausted. Not surprisingly, in several high-profile cases, innocent individuals have confessed to serious crimes, such as rape or sexual assault, after being kept awake for excessive periods of time.

In the recent study, participants completed a series of computer-based tasks and were instructed not to press the "escape" key, as this would cause data to be lost. Half of the participants were kept awake the entire night afterward, while the others were allowed to sleep for a full 8 hours. In the morning, researchers accused all of the participants of pressing the "escape" key and asked them to sign confessions.

Eight of the 44 well-rested participants signed false confessions. In contrast, half of the sleep-deprived participants confessed. The researchers concluded that sleep deprivation increased a participant's risk of confessing despite being innocent by more than 4 times.

Problematic interrogation procedures

These findings are alarming in light of the way that interrogations are sometimes conducted in the U.S, even when people are charged with violent criminal offenses or other serious infractions. Authorities, under pressure to make an arrest or obtain a conviction, often resort to the use of aggressive techniques that are geared toward obtaining a confession rather than exposing the truth. One such technique is the use of prolonged interrogations. Not surprisingly, according to The Guardian, the majority of false confessions occur following interrogations that last more than 12 or 24 hours.

The electronic recording of all custodial interrogations is one step that can reduce the risk of false confessions being obtained and then used to support wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, investigations here in Virginia have found that many law enforcement agencies do not require the recording of police interrogations. According to The Washington Post, one-third of the state's agencies do not have a written policy on interrogations and an additional one-third of the agencies have policies that allow recording but do not require it.

The Guardian states that, nationally, as many as 17 percent of interrogations occur between midnight and 8 a.m., suggesting that many people arrested by law enforcement may be at risk for being questioned while fatigued and ultimately giving false confessions. For these reasons, it is critical for anyone facing criminal charges, or being questioned by the police in reference to a criminal offense to speak to a defense attorney as soon as possible after being confronted by law enforcement.