8 Techniques of Interview and Interrogation – The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition



Techniques of Interview and Interrogation

In This Chapter

Preparing for the meeting

Getting the most out of a witness

Outsmarting suspects for a confession

Taking notes

Recording interviews

Obtaining information from people is typically the largest part of a private investigator’s job. Attorneys ask investigators to track down witnesses and take statements from them. Insurance companies want PIs to look into accidents. Businesses ask investigators to solve internal thefts. Parents want their runaway teenagers returned. Criminal defense attorneys will hand you a list of witnesses to interview. Each of these types of cases involves interviewing witnesses and potential witnesses, and interrogating suspects.

A witness is an individual who may have testimony pertinent to an investigation. A suspect is an individual who may have committed or aided in the commission of a crime that is under investigation.

In this chapter, I examine some techniques and methods that aid you in extracting information from witnesses and make it possible for you to get those suspects who have the most to lose—the guilty ones—to reveal the details of their crimes.

Making Preinterview Preparations

The best advice I can give you for debriefing a witness or interviewing a suspect is to be prepared. Before beginning an interview, make sure that you’re completely familiar with all the facts of the case.

Even though attorneys and insurance companies usually call with a new case assignment or fax or email the assignment to you, it’s a good practice to go to the client’s office and review the entire file concerning the case before you begin the investigation. I made a practice of this whenever possible, for two very good reasons. First, you’re the investigator. You know better than your client what will help you locate your witness. You may be able to squirrel out nuggets of information in those files—such as license tags, phone numbers, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers—that your client doesn’t even realize are important.

In making your preparations for the interview with your witness or suspect, write a list of the topics you need to cover. Sometimes the interview takes an unexpected turn; the witness reveals some information you were unaware of, and in the heat of following the new lead, you forget to ask everything you need to ask about the facts you had to begin with. That’s why you should always make a list of the topics you want to cover. If the interview gets really exciting for some reason, be sure to go over your list before you leave the witness and cover any topics you originally intended.

A while back, I sent one of my investigators to a small town, a three-hour drive away, to interview a witness. When I went over his report, I saw that he’d forgotten to ask some really pertinent questions. He hadn’t made a list before he left, as I’d taught him to do, so he had to drive six hours round-trip to redo the interview on his own time and at his own expense.

Going to your client’s office and reviewing the file gives you an opportunity to meet face-to-face. I can’t tell you how many additional cases I’ve picked up by going to an attorney’s office and walking past other attorneys in the practice. They see me going down the hall and invariably I hear, “Well, since you’re here, I’ve got a case I could use some help on.” It never fails. Even the attorney or claims adjuster you originally came to see will frequently find additional work or other files for you to review. Whenever it’s feasible, go to the client’s office.

Getting Witnesses to Talk to You

In conducting interviews, you have to give the person you’re interviewing a reason to tell you what you need to know. Logical reasons why the witness should cooperate are actually the least effective. Emotion works better than reason. One of the best emotional reasons for your witness to cooperate is because your witness likes you and wants to help you.

If you’re interviewing a driver who witnessed a car accident, she really doesn’t care about helping some attorney win a case in which the attorney is going to take 30 or 40 percent of the settlement. Most people don’t like attorneys anyway. And she certainly isn’t interested in helping a big insurance conglomerate save a few bucks at the expense of some poor old guy who ran into another person’s car accidentally. So why should she help you at all? The answer is to make her like you. You want her to think of you as a friend—and to think of your relationship as something that she’s willing to invest time and emotion in.

When you knock on the door, greet her with a smile and genuine warmth. Once inside, survey your surroundings immediately, for two reasons. First, you want to make sure that there is no danger present—nobody hiding behind the couch or the front door, for example, with a weapon. You may think this is a paranoid thing to do, but you just never know what was going on in that house or apartment at the time you knocked on the door. You could be walking in on a drug deal or a violent domestic dispute, and the couple stopped to answer the door. Better to err on the side of caution.

A second reason for taking in your surroundings has to do with building a relationship with the individual. People surround themselves with what’s important in their lives. Look around to find some common ground or an interesting hobby that your witness has. If you can discover her passion, what really motivates her and makes her life worthwhile, then you are on the road to making a new friend.

Find a common element with her life. If you’re a sailor and she has a picture of a sailboat on the wall, talk sailing. If the woman you’re trying to interview is busy cooking dinner and the kids are screaming, pick up the screaming baby and keep her occupied while you talk to the mother. If you can make friends with the child, the mom will be your friend, too.

The quickest way to the emotional center of many people is through their kids or pets. If the children or the dog like you, your interviewee will like you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to spend five minutes on my knees getting a dog to warm up to me, and then the witness says something like, “You know, I’ve never seen that dog warm up to strangers before.”

I like parrots. Last year I went into a home to conduct an interview and this couple had a scarlet macaw walking around on top of the couch. Macaws are large parrots with formidable beaks. As I began talking to the bird and then picking it up, I saw the couple both eyeing each other and then the bird. I think they thought he was going to bite me. Soon the bird was giving me kisses and we were best friends. When we finally settled down to the business of the interview, they had warmed up to me as much as the bird had. They didn’t give me any kisses, though.

Talk to the witness about her problems, her life, what interests her. Be charming and witty, if you can. Once she’s told you what is going on in her life, you’ve succeeded in subconsciously tying yourself to that part of her that makes life worth living. Now, instead of being an outsider, a representative of one of those “damn insurance companies,” you’re a real person with a tie to the better part of her life. And most important, she’s now emotionally involved with you, even if she’s not actually aware of it.

After you’ve established that bond of trust, the witness will tell you everything you want to know, as long as your questions don’t break that bond.

At one time during my career with the FBI, I was assigned to the Phoenix division. I had a road trip that covered three Indian reservations: the Pima, the Maricopa, and the northern part of the Papago. Early every Sunday morning, I’d receive a telephone call from the tribal police indicating that some federal crime had been committed, typically burglary, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, or homicide. I’d leave my bed and travel to the reservation. Generally, by midmorning, the crime would be solved, the perpetrator arrested, and the prisoner handcuffed with his hands behind his back and strapped into the front seat with the seatbelt where I could keep a close eye on him. I’d transport the prisoner a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix.

The suspect’s rights would have been read to him, and usually he would have waived those rights, signing a document to that effect. During this drive to the jail, I’d engage him in conversation. Invariably, we’d talk about his life on the reservation and his frustrations with life in general. Before the trip was over, he would have told me how some part of his life had made him commit the crime I’d arrested him for. It was never his fault—some outside force or inner demon made him do it—but he always confessed to the act itself. Because of the ironclad confession I obtained during the drive to the jail, I never had one of those cases go to trial. Every one of them pled guilty.

There was no rubber hose, no coercion—just concern for the suspect’s troubles and his life. You know, some of these guys committed the most heinous of crimes—brutal, body-mutilating crimes, sometimes against their own mother. But during that drive, I always found a redeeming side to each one of them. I never arrested a man I didn’t grow to like during that ride back to Phoenix. And I think the feeling was mutual.

Interrogating Suspects

Do private investigators ever get involved in criminal investigations? Absolutely. Some PIs make a career out of working criminal-defense cases. Our firm usually has some criminal cases ongoing at any given moment. Frequently, in the defense of a premise liability case, we investigate rapes and assaults that were alleged to have occurred on our client’s property.

A premise liability case involves the allegation that a property owner was negligent by not curing some default in the premise or real property owned or managed by the defendant, and this negligence led to the harm of the plaintiff. An example of this could be the plaintiff alleging that the defendant failed to provide adequate exterior lighting, and the ensuing darkness caused a rape or assault inflicted upon the plaintiff.

When interviewing suspects in criminal cases, it may not be easy to establish a bond of trust. Most criminals are street smart and believe in their hearts that they’re smarter than you, the investigator. For certain, they may have more street smarts than you do. But a good investigator can turn the criminal’s “smarter than you” self-image to her advantage in interrogating the suspect.

After a high-speed chase through downtown Phoenix, I arrested Daniel Black for interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle and assault on a federal agent. He’d assaulted my partner and fellow FBI agent who’d accompanied me to interview Black concerning his attempt to obtain false identity papers.

A week or so later, Daniel called me from the county jail and requested I come down to talk. He claimed concern for his wife, who’d escaped during the chase, but whom we later identified and charged as well. Previously, he’d had shoulder-length hair, but when he entered the interview room, I noticed he sported a completely shaved head. I ignored the change in his appearance and listened to his stated concerns about his wife, who’d made bail for herself, leaving him in jail. I think he actually called for the interview (he was represented by counsel, but since he’d initiated the contact, I could talk to him without his attorney present) to try to find out how much we knew about his numerous and varied criminal activities.

After a few minutes, he couldn’t stand the fact that I’d asked nothing about his shaved head. To show how “smart” he was, he admitted he’d shaved his head so that when he was put into a lineup, his appearance would be radically different and the witnesses wouldn’t be able to identify him. That statement constituted an admission of guilt, and I used it at his trial to convict him. He got eight years in the federal penitentiary because he just had to demonstrate how much smarter he was than the young FBI agent.

Whatever the case, if you can figure out what motivates your suspect, you can successfully interrogate him. A client who held a fairly high political office called me a while back. His home had been burgled three days previously, and a safe containing more than $40,000 in cash had been stolen.

Occasionally, a case lends itself to some sort of a percentage for recovery instead of an hourly rate. In most civil cases, private investigators are prohibited from working on a percentage because they are supposed to be “finders of fact”; if their fee is dependent on the success of the case, it could lead to a conflict of interest. This is especially true if the investigator will be a witness in the case. Some states, like New York, prohibit PIs from working on any type of contingency basis.

The facts were as follows: my client and his wife (I’ll call them the Smiths) had returned home one evening to find a glass panel in the front door broken. A baseball bat lay on the front stoop. Wisely, instead of entering the house, they called the police. The officers arrived and found the door locked. They reached through where the broken pane had been and opened the door. When the police entered the home, the burglar alarm sounded. The police inspected the house and found that the burglar was not present. The Smiths entered the home and discovered that the safe, which had been in a hall closet, was now missing. They reported to the police that the safe had held $20,000 in cash, but they insisted to me that the figure was really closer to $40,000.

Who had committed the burglary? After interviewing my clients, I was convinced that there had indeed been a burglary, the Smiths were actual victims, and this was not just an attempt at insurance fraud. The facts of the case and the burglar alarm being armed when the police arrived gave me three good clues to the identity of the thief. Can you guess what they are?

Whoever broke in and took the safe knew the alarm code, turned it off when he entered, and reset it when leaving with the safe.

The burglar took the entire safe because although he knew the alarm code, he didn’t know the combination to the safe and, hence, couldn’t open it on the spot.

The psychology behind rearming the alarm when he left indicated to me that the burglar had concern for the Smiths and didn’t want anybody else to burglarize the house while the Smiths were out—or else the burglar set the alarm out of habit.

Evaluating those three reasonable deductions, I decided that the thief was a regular visitor to the house and probably a family member.

We can make other deductions based on the facts I’ve given you, but those are the important ones. I went through the list of possible suspects with the Smiths and narrowed it to their 21-year-old unemployed son, Luke.

Luke lived in a trailer park with his girlfriend, whom the Smiths did not approve of. I went to the trailer park to interview the prime suspect. Luke was a thin white boy who was unsuccessfully trying to grow a mustache. A bare whisper of straggly dark hair grazed his upper lip. I showed my private investigator’s identification to Luke and asked him to open the trunk of his car. He didn’t balk at the request and didn’t ask why. I knew then he was good for the burglary because if he’d been innocent, he would have protested. Protesting wouldn’t have necessarily made him innocent. A guilty man might have protested, too—maybe even more—but not protesting, combined with the other facts, certainly convinced me he’d done it. When he opened the trunk, I also knew the money wouldn’t be in there, or he never would have opened it so readily.

I went through the motions of searching the car, just in case he’d left some of the money hidden there. Nothing. Luke told me his girlfriend was pregnant, but his folks didn’t know about the pregnancy. Luke appeared vulnerable, and I knew he wouldn’t fare well in the state penitentiary.

I asked him whether the police had been there yet. They hadn’t. “The police are coming,” I told him. “They’ll be there shortly.” I explained to him very graphically and in great detail what life in prison is like for young men of his slight build and complexion. Next, I put myself in a position to help him, to become a friend with his best interest in mind. I told him the only way for us to keep him from that fate was to get the money he’d stolen and return it to his parents before the police got there. Once the police had him, there was nothing his parents or I could do to help.

After my clear description of prison life and his alternatives, it took Luke about 30 seconds to step to the side of his trailer and begin digging with his bare hands. In a few minutes, he’d dug up a plastic container filled with bills. We took it inside and counted it together. I photographed him with the money, wrote out a receipt, and had him sign it. Together we took it back to his parents.

The police had a three-day head start in solving that burglary. It took me a little over an hour. Why was I able to solve it when they couldn’t? First, I used a little deductive reasoning. Second, I was able to read what would motivate Luke into confessing. Lastly, I was more motivated than the police because I needed results to justify my rather large bill to my client. The police get paid whether or not they solve the crime. It’s not unusual in a case like this to use results billing.

Results billing is the practice of charging more than a standard hourly rate if the results achieved justify a higher bill or a higher hourly rate.

Taking Copious Notes

When interviewing witnesses or suspects, always take copious notes. You should have a yellow legal pad or other type of notebook; record as much as possible of your interview. It’s not necessary to write down the questions you ask the witness, but you should record in a personal shorthand or scribble how the witness responds.

Always initial your original notes, date them, and, after using them to write your report, place the original notes in the case file.

There are three good reasons for this:

Memories aren’t perfect. The interview will be absolutely clear in your mind when you leave the witness, but it may be a day or two until you can write or dictate your report. In the intervening time, you will forget some of the facts the witness related to you. Your detailed notes of the interview will refresh your memory and make the report you deliver to your client more accurate.

A witness will change her story. Anywhere from a few months to several years later, you may be called upon to testify about your interview with that person. The witness also will be called to testify. Her memory of the accident will have been colored by what she’s read, or seen, or been told by other people. Sometimes a witness changes facts intentionally; sometimes she just can’t remember.

Your attorney, the opposing counsel, or the judge will ask you to produce the original notes. Your original notes are considered documents produced in the normal course of business. As such, they are admissible into court. They carry considerable weight in our judicial system. When the witness’s story, four years later, conflicts with your reporting, your attorney or the opposing attorney may ask you to produce your original notes. If your notes have been dated and initialed and are clear on the point in question, your testimony will be considered factual. When a case is won because of your professionalism, charge the client more. You deserve it, and he will pay it.

A successful resolution to a case makes the client happy and the attorney happy, and you should be happy, too. The attorney who hired you will usually suggest that you get your bill to him right away so that he can submit it to the client for prompt payment. If the case was a big win for the client and you don’t have a signed contract with him, you might at that time want to bump up your rate a notch. Nobody will balk because you’re worth it. You may have just saved your client a million dollars. If you’re a successful PI and produce winning cases for your clients, consider raising your rates anyway.

Recording the Interview

Attorneys use investigators to locate potential witnesses and interview them because it’s cheaper for the client to pay the investigator than it is to pay the attorney. It makes no sense to have the attorney running around interviewing folks who may or may not have any information about the case.

After an investigator finds a witness that has information germane to the investigation, the attorney may schedule a deposition for the witness. Depositions are expensive and time-consuming and require that a court reporter be present to record the questions and answers. Also, the opposing counsel is present. An attorney doesn’t want to depose everybody on the block where the accident occurred; he wants to depose only the folks who actually witnessed the accident and who will help his case.

A deposition is a statement made under oath by a witness, usually written or recorded, that may be used in court at a later time. If there is the likelihood that the deponent will not be available later—for instance, due to illness—it is not uncommon for the deposition to be videotaped. The deponent is the witness being deposed.

For instance, you, the PI, might find a woman who can testify that the driver of one of the vehicles involved in an accident you’re investigating was drunk when he left a party. Later that driver caused the accident. Although the witness didn’t see the accident, she could testify to the driver’s condition shortly before the accident when he left the party.

You, the investigator, need to get all the facts, good or bad, to your client. But your client—the attorney, in this case—doesn’t want the opposing side to know there is a witness out there who will hurt his case. If he deposes a witness harmful to his case, the other side will be at the deposition and obviously know it.

Unfortunately, the law in civil cases isn’t always about truth as much as it is about which side can present its view of the truth most effectively. As a PI, you shouldn’t take sides in a case. Instead, you should report the facts accurately. If the facts are not good for your client, that’s too bad. Report the facts, and let the chips fall where they may. If you start skewing the facts, you will tarnish your reputation and lose clients. If information out there is going to hurt your client’s case, he needs to know about it, because you can be sure the other side will bring it up. At least your client can be prepared for the worst.

To make sure you have all the facts and don’t omit anything from your report, consider recording the interview. We talked in Chapter 3 about the advantages of a digital recorder. Whether you’re using a dedicated digital recorder or a smartphone, you have to get the witness’s permission to record the interview.

Getting permission isn’t always easy. One approach that often works is to tell the person you’re interviewing that recording the conversation would really save you the trouble of taking handwritten notes. Would she mind? Don’t make a big production out of it. If your approach is low key and you make it sound like it’s the normal thing that you always do, most people won’t object. But if you make a big production out of setting up the recorder, the witness may change her mind.

Once you have the witness’s permission to record, you need to record four items at the very beginning of the interview:

1. State your name and occupation.

2. State the date and location where the interview is taking place.

3. State the witness’s name and indicate that she has given you permission to record this conversation. “Mrs. Brown, you are aware that we are recording this interview and I have your permission, is that correct?” Make sure the witness verbally says yes to that question. A nodding of the head can’t be heard on the tape when you produce it in court two years later.

4. Indicate the subject matter of the interview: an accident that occurred on such and such a date at a certain intersection.

Some clients ask for the original tape (if you’re still using tapes). Give them a duplicate. Besides violating the chain of custody on the evidence (see Chapter 20), attorneys are notorious for losing things. Produce the original tape when you go to court. With interviews in digital format, save a copy on your computer hard drive and make two CD copies—one for your file and one for your client. Hard drives crash and the material on CDs doesn’t last forever. Redundancy in backing up data is the best way to go.

The Least You Need to Know

Never go to an interview unprepared.

The best way to gain a witness’s assistance is to befriend her. Have the witness invest in your mutual relationship, and then you’ll have her help.

Successfully interrogating a suspect requires outsmarting her and figuring out what will motivate her to confess.

During a witness interview, take complete notes and retain the original notes, as they may be called into evidence later at a trial.

With permission, recording a witness interview is a good idea. Make a copy of the recording on a CD and maintain it in your file.