Police Comments About a Suspect’s Credibility: What an Officer Can Say in the Interrogation Room Versus What a Jury Can Hear in a Trial

Maryland law gives law enforcement officers extensive leeway in the interrogation tactics they use. Officers may permissibly manipulate, deceive, and even outright lie to a suspect; those are all valid investigative tactics. This reality is one of the reasons why refusing to speak with officers without a qualified Maryland criminal defense lawyer present is almost always a good idea. Your seasoned attorney may recognize when an officer is employing the “tools of the trade” to get you to say something incriminating, and protect you from making statements that could later harm you at trial.

However, the statements an officer can make in an interrogation setting are very different from statements the state can introduce into evidence in a criminal trial. And, as a recent murder case shows, while the police can tell a suspect “your story defies belief” in the interrogation room, the state generally can’t admit that opinion commentary into evidence in the suspect’s trial.

The murder case arose from an alcohol-fueled dispute between two friends. Police arrived at a Montgomery County apartment to find a man, Y.R., dead. They took a woman, S.N., into custody and interrogated her. That interrogation was recorded on video.

At S.N.’s murder trial, the prosecution played portions of that video footage for the jury. Across those six excerpts, the officers made opinion-related comments like “it’s odd to me that you don’t remember… what happened,” that the woman’s statement “doesn’t make sense,” “I find it hard to believe that you don’t remember,” and “saying you don’t remember makes it look like you’re not being completely honest.”

The jury eventually convicted the woman of second-degree murder and the woman appealed.

In throwing out the woman’s conviction and ordering a new trial, the Appellate Court noted that Maryland law is very clear that “an investigating officer’s opinions on the truthfulness of a suspect’s statement” are not admissible under Maryland Rule 5-401. This includes comments such as a straightforward “I don’t believe you” and other less direct statements that “make clear the officer’s disbelief.” If an officer repeatedly says, “Here’s what I think really happened” and recounts a series of events that differ from what the suspect said, that’s an example of the latter.

Proof of Police Misconduct is Not Required

As the Appellate Court highlighted, the police do not have to engage in misconduct. Even if the officer never acted in an inappropriately aggressive or confrontational manner, the officer’s negative opinion statements regarding the suspect’s credibility are inadmissible solely because of the potential impact those assertions might have on the jury. The prosecution may introduce officer opinions if the officer’s statement merely points out that the suspect has changed her story. However, an officer’s opinion statements are inadmissible if they go further, even if they merely point out that the suspect’s story is highly implausible.

That included, as the Appellate Court decided in 2018, a case where the state introduced evidence of the officers saying things like “we know that’s not true” and “we know different.”

Context Versus Commentary

In essence, the court said, Maryland law requires trial courts to distinguish context versus commentary. If the officer’s comments merely provide context for the suspect’s statements, they may be admissible. If the officer’s statements represent commentary about the suspect’s story (and the believability thereof,) they’re not admissible.

The statements in S.N.’s case were examples of the latter and should not have been admitted. This error entitled her to a new trial.

Having skilled legal counsel is crucial. That’s true whether you’re on trial or if the police have just begun questioning you. To ensure that your rights and your interests are protected to the maximum extent possible, call upon the knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. We’ve helped countless people facing both felony and misdemeanor charges, and we’re eager to get to work for you. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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