CARSON CITY – Everyone’s heard the stories of people wrongfully imprisoned after being coerced into a false confession, spending years or even decades behind bars.
Each story is a double tragedy; not only is an innocent person sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but in each case a guilty person escapes punishment.
That’s why the Innocence Project and Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, brought Assembly Bill 414, which requires police officers to record interrogations once suspects has been read their rights.
The bill says officers must record interrogations in “a place of detention” if a person is under arrest for homicide or sexual assault. It provides exceptions for malfunctioning equipment, out-of-state interrogations, routine bookings and suspects who request not to be recorded.
Failure to follow the law wouldn’t result in a confession being thrown out. But if a prosecutor couldn’t prove one of the exceptions applied, a judge would give the jury a “cautionary instruction” regarding the failure to record.
Supporters of the bill told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday that it would prevent coerced confessions, keep innocent people out of jail and even protect officers from lawsuits and false claims of misconduct.
“Recording interrogations prevents wrongful convictions based on false confessions,” said Michelle Feldman, legislative strategist for the Innocence Project. She said 23 states mandate the recording of interrogations, and federal law enforcement does so by policy.
She introduced Tim Bradford, who spent 10 years in prison after falsely confessing to a crime during a nine-hour interrogation in a small interview room, of which only the final 30 minutes was recorded.
He finally made up the story of his guilt “just to get out of this room,” he said.
And Lisa Rasmussen of the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said recording will help judges and juries get to the truth. “The truth is what matters. It’s what matters to jurors. It should be what matters to prosecutors. And it should be what matters to law enforcement.”
And of course, it does. “We share the same goal,” said Metro police lobbyist Chuck Calloway. We want to put the right person in jail who committed the crime.”
That’s why Metro policy currently says interrogations should be recorded when possible, and the homicide and sexual assault sections have a standard operating procedure of recording interrogations, too. (Bill supporters note that other departments in the state may not have the same rules, however.)
“But law enforcement is not black and white,” he said “Exceptions cannot cover every situation that is out there.”
For example, what about a suspect who spontaneously confesses at a crime scene? Or one who gets to talking with a patrol officer on the way to booking? What about a suspect who confesses after the interview is over and the camera is off? Or what if the equipment fails? Won’t defense attorneys be able to argue to a jury that something untoward happened in the interview room, because otherwise the officer would have recorded the interview?
Not only that, but how will juries react to the legal and entirely common practice of police officers lying to suspects? (Every viewer of police TV shows knows about the “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which a suspect is told his accomplice just spilled his guts and is getting a deal.) Will that trickery be excused, even if it results in a guilty man admitting to a crime?
Recording interrogations is a good practice. But AB 414 raises some issues that could backfire. Because while an innocent person going to jail based on a false confession is a tragedy, a guilty person going free because of a mistake is an outrage.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5276. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.