Monday, May 6, 2013

The Anatomy of a Confession

Most of the time, my clients are honest with me. Occasionally, however, I get the client who thinks of his attorney as a testing ground for whether he can fleece government officers. Or maybe the person has been concealing a fact for so long that he simply hasn't told it to anyone and thinks it is buried deeply enough that it never will be uncovered. Either way, there is a certain set of facts that I need to know in order to prepare a case properly, and one of them is whether my client has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. This is where I see people concealing information on an infrequent but consistent basis.

Because people often initially lie (or "forget," as they tell me) about this question, I have learned to ask it multiple times and in different ways. I ask it initially on a questionnaire, again in an email directly to the client and then, if I'm meeting them in person to present their case at the border to apply for admission, I ask them one last time before we cross the border, and I try to pierce them with my laser eyes when I ask. More often than not, people who initially lie about this bit of information will tell me when I ask them the second time. They may wait a day or two to respond, and then they come out with it. They often call me to tell me rather than respond to the email, and their confession is couched in all kinds of explanations-- "I was young," or "It was so long ago," or "I'm not sure if I was even convicted..."

I've noticed a pattern to all of this. When people are ashamed of a fact, or think that others will judge them harshly for it or that it will negatively affect their future, they bring the truth out slowly. They admit to part of the truth initially and then bring out the rest later. Once you've got someone admitting to a corner of the truth, though, it's easy to grab onto it and drag the whole thing out. They just need a little help, a few questions. I don't particularly enjoy this process but the pattern has become so easy to spot-- it's so universal from one culture, gender, and background to the next-- that I realize the game we're playing almost immediately and jump into my role. It's better that I be the one to drag it out than a government officer. That way, we have time to prepare a legal argument, if there is one to be made.

I had one client, however, who was so recalcitrant about this process that it passed my notice and I ended up watching an officer drag the truth out of him over the course of a very long morning. I could not believe how long it took but I could see the path we were headed down. This guy was in his 70s, and was applying at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo to enter the U.S. to work for the U.S. branch of his Canadian employer. He lived in a border town and had crossed into the U.S. numerous times as a visitor over the years. He had never been stopped and questioned about his history and therefore thought that the U.S. government had no idea about his convictions. After all, they had happened when he was in his 20s. What he did not know was that the officers at primary inspection at the little booths outside do not run the full criminal background check, whereas the officers inside at secondary inspection, where we needed to present his case, do.  In fact, it's the first thing they do, before they even start to look at the person's eligibility for the employment-authorized status they seek.

When the officer called my client up, he started asking him to verify his name, which happened to be a very unusual name, and then launched into questions about the convictions he saw in the system. My client first tried to convince the officer it was another person with the same name (very unlikely). Then he stated he had never even been to the Canadian province where the conviction occurred, but later recalled having taken a road trip there with his friend, who he then started to claim must have been arrested and gave the officers his name. This went on and on, for 2 or 3 hours, until my client finally admitted that he had been convicted of Breaking & Entering because he had siphoned gas out of a police car.

All throughout the process, I continued to counsel him to tell the truth if he remembered anything- fortunately my client was not charged with fraud for misrepresenting a material fact. He could have been. What's worse, the conviction likely would not have been an issue if he had told me about it up front and we had gone through the process of collecting and analyzing the records. But I couldn't do anything about it at that point.

I think that the way that people confess to their lies in stages tells us something about the way that people start to embed lies in their brains in the first place; the confession is a reversal of that process. Belief in one's own lies is a slow process of integrating a falsified piece of information into the fabric of the truth. I think my client who took a particularly long time to confess did so because he had held onto the lie for a particularly long period of time, had come to believe it himself.  It was only when forced to confront the record that he began to extricate the falsified information from the place in his memory where it had come to rest.

[Confession: I am not really capable of making laser eyes.]

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