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The chances of ensuring the reliability of evidence at trial and guarding against false confessions are improving in New York State, thanks to a new law requiring video recordings of custodial interrogations with individuals accused of serious crimes, including homicides and violent felony sex offenses.
“Recording interrogations can be critical in helping convict the guilty, free the wrongly accused and uphold faith and confidence in our criminal justice system,” said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo upon enactment of the new law.
Nationwide, 29 percent of wrongful conviction cases involved a false confession or incriminating statement, according to the New York-based Innocence Project, which has won the release of hundreds of innocent prisoners worldwide.
Law enforcement investigators are now required to video record interrogations of individuals accused of most serious non-drug felonies. The requirement applies to custodial interrogations at police stations, correctional facilities, prosecutor’s offices and similar holding areas. Failure to record interrogations in applicable cases could result in a court determining that a confession is inadmissible as evidence.
The change to the Criminal Procedure Law was adopted by the state Legislature along with other criminal justice reforms as part of the fiscal year 2017–18 state budget. It took effect April 1.
Many organizations have long called for the recording of custodial interrogations in New York State, including the Innocence Project; the New York State District Attorneys Association; and New York State Bar Association. A report by the State Bar identified factors contributing to wrongful convictions—including false confessions—and recommended video recording of custodial interrogations as one solution. Other factors associated with wrongful convictions include identification procedures, defense and government practices, forensic evidence and jailhouse informants, the report stated.
False confessions can occur during custodial interrogations when defendants are intimidated, subject to physical force, compromised by exhaustion, hunger, stress, substance abuse or intellectual limitations, or even coerced, among other factors. Sometimes defendants become so broken down that they believe that confessing is in their best interest.
The disturbing number of wrongful convictions led to the creation of conviction review units (CRU) around the country, including one in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. Established in 2014 by then-District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, it is considered the largest CRU in the nation and its work reviewing old and cases has led to the exoneration of 24 individuals.
Many of the matters CRUs consider are cases that emerged from an era with little or no surveillance or DNA evidence and a reliance on questionable witnesses or coerced confessions.
Now, instead of basing convictions on testimony about interrogations, the ability to review a recording of it can help lay to rest concerns a suspect’s confession was coerced. In addition, the video recording will reveal whether or not the defendant was actually informed of his or her rights, and whether they waived those rights prior to any questioning. But most importantly, it can help prevent the wrongful convictions of innocent people.
In addition to New York, other states that have enacted legislation regarding the recording of custodial interrogations include Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, according to the Innocence Project. State supreme courts have taken action in Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Jersey.
If you have been treated unfairly by law enforcement and/or have been wrongfully charged, Tully Rinckey PLLC attorneys can help.
Peter J. Pullano, Esq. is Managing Partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Rochester, N.Y. office. Mr. Pullano has more than 30 years of experience in criminal law and has been recognized regionally for his work, including the 2016 Criminal Justice Act Award from the United States District Court for the Western District of New York.