The Court and the Suspect: Human Frailty, the Calculating Criminal, and the Penitent in the Interrogation Room


This Article examines Supreme Court case law on police interrogation and discovers that the Justices have espoused two basic characterizations of a suspect being interrogated: that of the “rugged individual” and that of the “susceptible individual.” As the examination reveals, each characterization has had a period of ascendency and the protections that are afforded a suspect largely depend on which characterization a majority of the Court invokes. This framework, however, does more than help explain the confusion surrounding the case law. By bringing these two competing visions out into the open, a direct examination from both an empirical and doctrinal viewpoint can be made of their underlying assumptions about human behavior.

The Article proceeds in five parts. Part One looks at how the Court has struggled with the meaning of ‘voluntariness’ in the context of interrogation and introduces the idea that the Justices’ vision of who is seated in the interrogation room heavily colors that determination. Part Two looks at how the Court has at times envisioned the suspect as the “rugged individual,” an individual who knows his or her rights and can stand up to the pressures of interrogation absent exceptional circumstances. Part Three explores the rise of a different characterization, that of the “susceptible individual” in the interrogation room, and how at its zenith this characterization resulted in the landmark decision of Miranda v. Arizona, an ascendency that has now largely been replaced by the return of the rugged individual as the primary archetype. Part Four analyzes the Court’s recent resurrection of the rugged individual perspective and how it rationalizes confessions as either the product of a “calculating rugged individual” who mistakenly believed that he could win a battle of wits with the police, or as the decision of a “penitent rugged individual” choosing to confess as a first step towards redemption. In Part Five, the Article looks at the rugged individual and susceptible individual models in light of empirical and doctrinal critiques, as well as their implications for false confessions and government-citizen relations. The empirical evidence and DNA-exoneration cases show that the rugged individual archetype is out-of-step with the realities of the interrogation room and puts minority and poorer defendants at a distinct disadvantage in exercising their rights.


Criminal law, Interrogation, Due process, Self-incrimination, Voluntariness, False confessions, Rugged individual, Susceptible individual, Criminal justice, Sixth Amendment, Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966)



Scott E. Sundby (University of Miami School of Law)



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