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Research shows police warnings not easily understood

By Kelly Foss | Nov. 16, 2012

You’ve seen it on countless television programs – a suspect is arrested and read their rights. But just how much do you know about what your rights actually are?

Dr. Brent Snook, an associate professor of psychology, Faculty of Science, says the answer may be surprising.

“Anyone who is suspected of committing an offence must be read his or her rights before an interview continues – that involves reading the right to legal council,” he explained. “Most are read the right to legal silence warning as well.”

Dr. Snook says across the country there is a lot of variations on how these warnings are delivered and, through seven separate studies over a period of five years, his research group has made some interesting findings.

“Officers deliver these warnings at a fairly fast pace and they often don’t attempt to verify that they’ve been understood,” added Dr. Snook. “They assume that if they have read the rights, they’ve fulfilled their duty and the suspect understands because they have told the officer they understand.”

However, research has shown that isn’t exactly the case.

“Invariably they say, ‘Sure, I understand what my rights are’,” said Dr. Snook. “But do they? No, because we’ve tested it time and time again and they only understand about 30 per cent of the information that’s actually contained in those cautions.”

Understanding the cautions is complicated by the fact that different organizations across the country use a variety of wordings. Dr. Snook adds that generally across Canada the cautions are fairly complicated, filled with legal jargon, complex or infrequently used words and long passages of text.

Dr. Snook says the interesting part is that when he and his students took the cautions, removed all of the difficult words and made them as simple and as short as they could before presenting them to people, but with no better comprehension on the first instance by the alleged offender.

So instead, the research team sought out officers who could improve retention and understanding of the information by using certain techniques when presenting it.

“If an officer tells a suspect to pay attention because they’re going to read them their rights and that this is important, they will pay better attention,” he said.

It was found that if an officer begins by stating he or she has a particular number of points the alleged offender needs to know, and then repeats the points, it affords an individual a chance to think about the information and repeat it in a way that makes sense to them. By doing so, it was found that comprehension by the individual was improved as much as 70 per cent.

Future studies will test if these findings will continue to work in more realistic or stressful situations. Dr. Snook is also seeking funding to study the cautions provided to youth, which are even more complex.

“The Canadian justice system tried to make it better, to make sure youth are protected, but in their desire to make things better they’ve actually made it worse,” he said. “If an adult caution is 80 words long, a youth caution could be 1,400 words long, just pages and pages that a young person has to know, but their cognitive capacity to understand all this additional information is just not there.”

But Dr. Snook says the information his research group has discovered is getting out there and changes are being made. He says that his research is published in both peer-reviewed journals as well as in policing magazines, but in layman’s terms. Dr. Snook also says he has conducted “quite a bit” of training locally, nationally and internationally.

“In this province, almost every officer with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has been trained, so now it’s just a matter of putting it into practice. The RNC has been incredibly progressive in these areas and they are putting us miles and miles ahead of other provinces.”