David Sonenshein, Jack E. Feinberg Professor of Litigation at Temple Law School, is an accomplished figure, both in the classroom and the larger legal profession. A graduate of Cornell University and the New York University School of Law, Sonenshein has taught at Boston University, DePaul University, and George Washington University Law School. He teaches classes in evidence, criminal procedure, and civil procedure. An engaging and compelling presence in the classroom, Sonenshein has received the Outstanding Professor Award at both DePaul and Temple Law Schools a total of six times. In 2004, Professor Sonenshein was honored as one of Temple University’s finest teachers, receiving the University’s Lindback Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 2007, he was awarded the University’s prestigious Great Teacher Award.
Today, though, he is more interested in talking about his recent experience as a student. Sonenshein recently traveled to London, where he had the unique opportunity to participate in a Scotland Yard “Crime Academy” training for detectives who want to move up in the ranks. “I was writing an article on the 50th anniversary of Miranda,” he explains. “In addition to looking at its impact on interrogation methods in the US, I wanted to compare American methods to those in the U.K., which is known for an innovative method instituted about 15 years ago by an act of Parliament and the British Police Chiefs Association that changes the way that interrogations are done. They used to use the Reid method, which is what we use in the U.S. and what most Commonwealth countries use around the world, but they moved away from it 15 years ago after numerous extraordinary cases of false confessions, including children.”
“In the British system,” Sonenshein continues, “the first lesson they have is, do not assume guilt.”
The issue of false confessions is an urgent one for Sonenshein, not just as a scholar but as an advocate for justice. While it is impossible to accurately measure the number of false confessions, police authorities in one large East Coast city estimate it to be about 5% of all confessions obtained.
With the help of colleagues on a small international panel looking at criminal justice in the European Union, Sonenshein made arrangements to participate in a training on the PEACE Method at Scotland Yard. He says he was shocked by what he learned. “I expected to get an attitude of ‘yeah, yeah, PEACE, whatever, we still do it our way.’ But what they said to me was, ‘we were doing it wrong, now we’re doing it right.’”
What they are doing is flipping the script on how and why they interview suspects. “In America,” Sonenshein explains, “we use the Reid method, which is based on a presumption of guilt and designed to get a confession. That’s the key – not to find out the truth, not to find out what happened, but to simply get the suspect to confirm by whatever means you can that your belief that he did it is correct.” Lying is permissible, as is manipulation, and the police officer is trained to talk over the suspect if he tries to offer information about other leads. There is neither opportunity nor incentive to consider that the person in custody may not be the right suspect.
The British have different priorities. Lying to a suspect is forbidden by law, for example. “The Chief Inspector asked me what American cops can do,” Sonenshein recalls. “‘They can lie, and make up false evidence?’ The look on his face, and on the other people in the room, when I said they could, said, ‘Are you barbarians?’”
“In the British system,” he continues, “the first lesson they have is, do not assume guilt. If you assume guilt, we’re pulling you out of the room. The purpose there is to find out what happened. They have found that by establishing rapport, treating a person decently, and having an open mind, they get confessions – they’re not trying to discourage confessions, but they want to get accurate ones. It’s a completely different point of view.”
I expected to get an attitude of ‘yeah, yeah, PEACE, whatever, we still do it our way.’ But what they said to me was, ‘we were doing it wrong, now we’re doing it right.’
The PEACE Method – it stands for Plan, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, and Evaluation – requires an interviewer to establish rapport with a suspect and to ask open-ended questions designed to draw out what the suspect knows. “It is exactly the training we do for American lawyers when taking depositions,” Sonenshein notes. “You want the person to talk, and if you are confrontational, more often than not they won’t talk. So the planning is done with a team – it’s not just one cowboy going off. That’s what they were doing in the training I saw – planning the interview in teams of 3-4 of these young officers together.”
So could PEACE come to America? Sonenshein thinks it could. “Sure,” he says. “It’s a matter of will. I have no doubt there will be resistance from some police officers, who will say that it makes their job more difficult. I think what it would take – what would be very useful, and what I would try to arrange – is to have British officers come here to explain its success. If we can get one major metropolitan police force to take it on, I think the rest will follow.”
For Sonenshein, the difference between Reid and PEACE is a matter of justice. “As lawyers and advocates, we all have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to seek justice,” he says. “Getting the right suspect does that; merely getting a confession does not.”