A Corporate Abuse
In a recent column I wrote about police
interrogation tactics that lead a surprising number of people to confess
to crimes they didn't commit. It turns out that corporate America has followed
suit. Many large corporations take a "loss prevention" approach that
utilizes training manuals modeled after the leading police manuals -- using
the very techniques that cause false confessions. Indeed, the group that produces
the leading manual, John Reid and Associates, boasts about its infiltration
into loss prevention.
When a large chain finds money missing (which, needless to say, happens often),
and is convinced that one of its employees is guilty of theft, in come trained
interrogators with well-honed tactics of isolating the individual and cutting
off all escape routes until he feels he is better off confessing--even if he's
innocent. (The June 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind features an excellent
discussion of the prevailing interrogative methods and their perils titled True
Crimes, False Confessions by Saul M. Kassin and Gisli H. Gudjonsson).
It's even worse in the case of private companies than the police, because they
don't have to issue Miranda warnings and give employees the opportunity to consult
an attorney and remain silent. Instead, they place the defenseless employee
in a small, claustrophobic room and systematically break down his will--confronting
him with fabricated evidence of his guilt, threatening to fire him instantly
(and get the police involved) unless he confesses and promising leniency if
he does so.
Last month, we learned more about the way this works from a trial in the Superior
Court of San Diego County. A civil jury struck a blow for corporate accountability,
socking AutoZone with a verdict of $7.5 million in punitive damages.
The case stemmed from events several years ago, when a store manager became
convinced that one of his employees (a loyal worker with a sterling reputation)
had stolen $800. The manager followed the playbook. He had a security guard
grill the employee in a small office for almost three hours, confronting him
with false evidence and threatening his discharge and arrest unless he confessed.
If he did confess, he was assured, he could pay the company back and keep his
job, and the matter would remain private.
The innocent employee became convinced of the futility of maintaining his innocence,
especially since he feared losing his job (and perhaps his freedom) and the
ability to support his two young children.
Is it surprising that, under these circumstances, the employee confessed? The
more we learn about widespread interrogation tactics, the more we realize that
the decision to confess falsely can be rational -- a mistake, to be sure, but
the product of an understandable cost-benefit analysis made under extreme circumstances--circumstances
created by interrogators precisely to make the suspect feel hopeless. AutoZone
inculcated such methods in its 200-page handbook for managers. And it isn't
just AutoZone--corporations around America have imported the worst aspects of
police interrogative techniques.
In the case of the AutoZone employee, the company didn't even keep its coercive
promise -- it fired him almost immediately after his confession and took the
amount he "stole" out of his last paycheck. But Joaquin Robles turned
out to be the wrong person to mess with. His lawsuit not only gave him justice,
but also shed the spotlight on the corporate coercion industry. The trial exposed
the manual used by AutoZone's so-called "loss prevention" managers
and produced testimony from other employees about similarly coercive treatment.
The episode exemplifies the grandeur of the civil justice system, with ordinary
citizens holding the powerful accountable and establishing that blatant violations
of social norms will not be tolerated. Punitive damages play an important role
in that process. This case first went to trial several years ago, and a jury
found that the AutoZone manager "falsely imprisoned" Robles, and awarded
$73,000 in compensatory damages. The trial judge would not allow Robles' attorney
to ask the jury for punitive damages. The Court of Appeal of California, Fourth
Appellate District reversed that decision, holding that Robles had the right
to argue to the jury that AutoZone's policies were sufficiently outrageous as
to warrant punitive damages. The case was finally retried in March of this year.
Now, AutoZone is $7.5 million poorer (or at least will be if the verdict survives
the inevitable appeal) but perhaps a bit wiser.
AutoZone is not the first company to be called out for its bullying interrogations
of employees or customers. (Law buffs can check out 340 F. Supp. 2d 308 and
501 A.2d 561.) But this verdict is comparatively large, and we can only hope
that corporations all over America take notice. When they investigate alleged
intra-company theft, it isn't asking too much that they follow fair procedures
and eschew tactics that predictably lead to the punishment of innocent people.
Robles v AutoZone was brought to my attention by author Alan Hirsch, whose
provides a valuable overview about false confessions as well as provocative
analyses of both cases in the headlines and cases ignored by the major media.
Read from Looking Glass News
How Cops Break Down the Innocent - The Tragedy of False Confessions
by Ralph Nader