A new state law requiring law enforcement agencies to video record custodial interrogations with individuals accused of serious crimes, including homicides and violent felony sex offenses, went into effect on April 1, 2018. Introduced in 2017 as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s criminal justice reform package, and passed by the state legislature last year, the law aims to ensure that evidence collected during interrogations is credible, and to safeguard against coerced and otherwise false confessions.
“Recording interrogations can be critical in helping convict the guilty, free the wrongly accused, and uphold faith and confidence in our criminal justice system,” Cuomo said. “I’m proud that this hard-fought reform is now in effect, bringing us one step closer to a more fair and more just New York for all.”
The new requirement covers most serious non-drug felonies. It applies only to custodial interrogations at police stations, correctional facilities, prosecutors’ offices and similar holding areas; failure to record interrogations in such cases could result in a court determining that a confession is inadmissible as evidence.
Prior to the new law taking effect, the New York State Municipal Police Training Council amended its model policy outlining how law-enforcement agencies should conduct and record custodial interrogations. The policy outlines required interrogation procedures, including recording Miranda warnings; finding an age-appropriate setting if a juvenile is being interviewed; camera positioning; date and time stamping of the footage; identifying all parties present for the recording; and documenting any equipment challenges that arise.
A Fair and Popular Law
The law has received praise from prosecutors, the state District Attorneys’ Association and defendants’ advocates. Telephone research by attorney Tom Sullivan also suggests that once police experience having their interrogations videotaped—and not having to spend so much time in court defending their actions—they will wholeheartedly embrace the practice.
“The Innocence Project applauds the implementation of the law requiring the electronic recording of interrogations,” said project policy director Rebecca Brown. “This is a critical reform that offers robust protections to the innocent by creating a clear record of what transpired in the interrogation room. The Innocence Project also supports careful study of implementation efforts to assess the degree of uniformity in practice; the feasibility of expanding the crime categories for which recording is required over time; and the reliability of various interrogation methods.”
What Makes an Innocent Person Confess?
Casual observers unfamiliar with examples of false confessions obtained during interrogations might wonder why a person would confess to a crime he or she did not commit. But such confessions occur for several reasons, and judges and juries historically have ruled based on confessions, even in the presence of contradictory evidence.
The factors contributing to false confessions include intimidation, the use of physical force, or the perceived threat of force, by the interrogating officer; devious interrogation techniques, including false statements about the presence of incriminating information, or the promise of a lighter sentence; and compromised reasoning ability due to exhaustion, hunger, stress, substance use, or intellectual or mental limitations. In some cases, defendants become so stressed and broken down that they begin to believe somehow that a confession is in their best interest, or that they actually did commit the crime.
One of the most notorious cases involving false confessions is that of the “Central Park Five”: the five black and Hispanic teenagers who were convicted in the brutal 1989 rape of a 28-year-old white woman who was jogging in the New York City park. Each boy, after 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, gave in and confessed to being present at the crime scene but not to being the rapist, because each one, in his worn-down mental state, had concluded it was in his best interest to do so. Even though they all quickly recanted, and DNA evidence did not match any of them, they were convicted and collectively spent 41 years in prison.