Interviews & Interrogations

Daniel P. Higgins describes the different techniques used by interviewers and interrogators when investigating suspected arson cases.


It's 1:30 in the morning. A Molotov cocktail crashes through a bedroom window. Fortunately for the occupants, the bottle's landing is cushioned by bedclothes, preventing it from breaking and spreading its deadly contents. Photo by Therese R. Rasnick Information gathered at or near...


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The legal difference between an interview and an interrogation is dictated by the circumstances under which each is conducted. If the interrogation is done in a non-custodial setting, where the subject knows he or she is free to leave at any time, the investigator is under no obligation to advise the subject of his or her rights. For example, near the scene of a fire you stop a man on the street who matches the description of a suspect seen running from the building. You ask him to tell you where he was at the time of the fire. He refuses to answer and walks on. If you stop him and continue to question him, you are conducting a custodial interrogation and you must advise him of his rights. If you fail to do so and he turns out to be the perpetrator, anything he tells you from that point on will be unusable. If, however, you let him walk away and as he reaches the corner he turns and yells that he was burning the building down, you may use the statement but when you catch him, you must advise him of his rights before further questioning.

If in the above scenario, had you smelled gasoline on the man's clothes when you stopped him, you would have probable cause to detain him for questioning. Again, you would have to advise him of his rights as soon as you determined that he was not going to walk away without answering your questions. If it were to turn out that he just looked like the suspect and smelled of gasoline because he worked in a service station, you would then let him go; if, however, this was the man you were looking for, you would have protected your investigation.

Once it is determined that an investigator is conducting an interrogation, several rules must be followed. After the subject is advised of his or her rights, a "knowing and intelligent waiver" must be obtained before questioning can continue. This means the subject must have clearly understood what he or she was giving up. A person who is drunk or under the influence of drugs cannot make an intelligent waiver. At times, it may be necessary to have an interpreter present to explain the rights in a suspect's native language, even if the suspect appears to understand English. An investigator cannot cajole, threaten, or trick a suspect into waiving his or her rights.

If the suspect chooses to remain silent, the investigator must honor that choice. If the suspect asks for counsel, all questioning must stop until counsel is present. The answering of questions by a suspect prior to invoking his or her rights does not waive them; the suspect may stop talking or request counsel at anytime during the interrogation.

Assuming a valid waiver has been obtained, the interrogation can begin. The physical and technical preparations are similar to those needed for interviews. In addition, the investigator must gather as much information as possible beforehand. Questions should be framed in the interrogator's mind.

The investigator should not indicate any suspicions immediately; rather, a rapport should be established that lets the suspect feel the investigator is sympathetic to his or her problems. The investigator should remain professional at all times, and encourage the suspect to speak. The subject of an interrogation will probably lie, but a loss of temper could cost the investigator what might otherwise be a productive interrogation. An investigator who knows the facts of the case can contradict the suspect. Caught in a lie, most people have a hard time continuing it.

Further Applications

While obtaining a confession is one goal of an interrogation, it is not the only goal. Interrogation is an investigative tool of far wider application. Some of its other purposes are:

  • To induce the subject to make admissions revealing the facts and circumstances surrounding a crime.
  • To learn of the existence and location of physical evidence.
  • To learn the identity of accomplices.
  • To develop additional leads for the investigation.

In court, a confession without supporting information is not enough for a conviction.

Both the interviewer and the interrogator must possess certain qualities. They must be adaptable, able to fit on Park Avenue as well as skid row. They must also be prepared to take unusual answers in stride and continue the interview/interrogation. The investigator should be courteous, poised, persistent and persuasive.

Being a good listener, able to comprehend what is being said, not just hear it, is also a prerequisite, as are being unbiased, able to determine the reliability of witnesses, and being observant and knowledgeable. These qualities along with good verbal skills make up the complete interviewer/interrogator.

It is a truism in criminal investigation that most crimes are solved by "information." Nowhere is this truer than in arson investigation. It is rare that circumstantial evidence is enough to obtain a conviction. The effectiveness of an investigation depends on the investigator's ability to obtain information from complainants, witnesses, informants and suspects.