Coerced Confessions Unconstitutional: Florida v. Chambers (1940)

Seventy-five (75) years ago today, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Chambers that confessions obtained through coercion are inadmissible at trial. The circumstances of the coercion in Chambers weren’t especially brutal; there was no evidence of beatings, threats, deprivation of food or water, water-boarding or other misconduct which is often associated with confessions brought about by torture; rather, the defendants were held without a lawyer for five days and subjected to repeated and continuing questioning (all day, every day, and one full night) by as many as 10 police officers at a time, reflecting an interrogation that crossed the line into browbeating and intimidation.

What is the status of Chambers today? It remains good law. Neither the police nor any other branch of government is entitled to coerce a confession from a suspect. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, coerced confessions are inadmissible. In 2009, the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Bacha v. Obama that confessions obtained by torture are inadmissible, even if the misconduct occurred outside the continental United States.

All of this raises an interesting issue: Suppose the police know, not on the basis of a mere hunch, but upon concrete, undeniable evidence, that a suspect has planned a massive, imminent terrorist attack in the United States, but the date, time and location remain unknown. Should the police or any other law enforcement official be permitted to use coercion? Or how about coercion but not torture? And suppose the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” would it be appropriate to use the information acquired during coercive questioning during a subsequent criminal trial? Or should the law be that, because coercion and torture are so horrific, the evidence could be used only in order to save lives, but not to convict?