Toward assessing and improving the protective efficacy of Canadians’ interrogation rights: misinformation and caution comprehension

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The right to silence and right to counsel serve to protect detainees facing the power imbalance of police interrogation. Unfortunately, research indicates people are misinformed about their rights and struggle to comprehend the police cautions which explain them. This reduces the protective efficacy of rights in practice. Three inter-related studies sought to address these issues within a Canadian-specific context. First, Canadians’ (N = 212) interrogation rights knowledge was assessed through open-ended, vignette, and true/false measures. Many Canadians (72-95%) were misinformed about important aspects, and limitations, of their interrogation rights. Next, to improve knowledge and increase caution comprehension, a widely used Canadian police caution (RCMP) was modified to create a 1) “Simplified” caution with reworked wording, structure, and added explanations, and 2) an “Informative” (simplified) caution, with added content about rights limitations. Cautions were assessed for readability and complexity, then tested in a 4-condition low-stakes online experiment with Canadians (N = 200) using measures from Study 1. Despite most Canadians self-reporting caution comprehension (94-98%), and Informational condition participants demonstrating higher average scores, comprehension was low overall and group differences were not significant. However, average correct knowledge scores and key rights limitation scores were significantly higher for the Informative caution participants compared to those in the RCMP or no caution conditions. Finally, to increase test validity of the modified cautions, Ontario Tech undergraduates (N = 90) participated in a 3-condition higher-stakes mock-interrogation, guised as a “convincing alibi” study. Students prepared an alibi, heard 1 of 3 cautions, provided their alibi under mild duress, and completed Study 2 measures. Results mirrored Study 2: all students self-reported caution understanding, but comprehension scores were low overall. Students hearing the Informative caution demonstrated higher average correct rights knowledge, followed by the Simplified, then RCMP caution, however, differences were only significant for the right to counsel. This research indicates that - although Canadians are misinformed about their interrogation rights - knowledge of rights can be improved by altering the wording and structure of, and adding critical information to, Canadian police cautions. Through improving knowledge and comprehension, we can enhance the protective efficacy of interrogation rights for Canadians.
Right to counsel, Right to silence, Police cautions, Comprehension, Interrogations