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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > March 2013 > State v. Smith, Seventh District Court of Appeals (Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson

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State v. Smith, Seventh District Court of Appeals (Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson, Mahoning, Monroe, and Noble counties), Feb. 1, 2013

Question: Does a peace officer’s mistakenly incorrect statement of law invalidate a confession?
Quick Answer: Yes, when the incorrect statement is repeated numerous times and coercive in nature.

Facts: A woman made a report at the police station that her physician, Larry Smith, had sexual contact with her against her will. Two detectives visited Smith’s office to talk about the accusation, and Smith agreed to speak with the detectives later at the police station. Once Smith arrived, the detectives took him into an 11 x 17 booking room to question him. They told him he wasn’t under arrest and he could leave at any time. He wasn’t offered a seat during the questioning. The detectives repeatedly asked Smith if he had sexual contact with the woman, and Smith denied doing so. One of the detectives then told Smith, “You are allowed to have sexual relationships with your clients. Is it unethical? Yes. Is it illegal? No, it’s not illegal.” The same detective also explained that “there’s an Ohio Revised Code [and] with all the Ohio laws[,] it is not illegal as a physician to have sex with your client.” The detective assured Smith, “I know the law, obviously . . . and I’m telling you it is not illegal . . . to have sex with your patients.” However, under Ohio law, a physician commits sexual battery by having sexual relations with a patient.
After 47 minutes of questioning, and the detective’s seven assurances that Smith wasn’t committing a crime by having sexual relations with his patients, Smith admitted that he had consensual sexual contact with the patient. Smith later was charged with rape and sexual battery. Smith moved to suppress his statements to police based on an involuntary confession.
Why this case is important: The court held that, based on the detective’s repeated false statements of law, Smith’s confession was involuntary. A suspect’s confession is not voluntarily made if it’s obtained by threats or violence, by any direct or implied promises, or by exerting improper influence over the suspect. Here, the detectives told Smith repeatedly that having sexual relations with his patients wasn’t a crime, which is an incorrect statement of law—it’s sexual battery. The repetition of this false statement, for 47 minutes, eventually influenced Smith to admit to having sexual contact with the victim: “OK, do you want me to say it’s consensual? OK, it’s consensual.” This repeated incorrect statement of law coerced Smith to confess involuntarily, and this type of coercion was similar to an implied promise that an admission to having sexual relations wasn’t going to cause Smith any legal problems.
Keep in mind: False statements of the law, regardless whether you know they are false, aren’t acceptable police tactics when you make those statements repeatedly to encourage a confession. Just because no obvious signs of coercion are used, such as threats or raised voices, doesn’t mean that your statements can’t be construed as coercive, especially when they appear as an implied promise that a confession won’t render any legal consequences.
Visit the Ohio Supreme Court’s website to view the entire opinion.