Public Defenders Push Strict Laws for Interrogation Footage


Adrian Thomas falsely confessed to harming his infant son when Troy police told him that admittance could save the boy’s life. Video footage of the nearly 10-hour interrogation revealed what they didn’t tell him: the boy was already dead.

The recording of the coercive interrogation gave Thomas a not-guilty verdict in his son’s 2008 death, and Thomas says New York can avoid other false confessions by requiring all police departments to record video of police interrogations from start to finish.

“I was tricked,” Thomas said. “This should never happen to anybody, to the average cab driver, to the average cook, any person that’s just walking — this style of interrogation — period.”

A group of New York public defenders and criminal defense organizations on Monday pushed for an Assembly bill that would require police interviews regarding violent felonies be recorded on video, saying full documentation protects both the police from accusations of wrongdoing and the wrongfully accused from coercion.

New York currently has no statewide laws requiring departments create video of interrogations.

The Assembly proposal is a stricter version of one by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would require custodial video recordings statewide and would provide nearly $1.7 million in grants to local departments to buy video equipment.

Al O’Connor, of the New York State Defenders Association, said Cuomo’s legislation is a good step toward police accountability, but it’s “strewn with loopholes,” including allowing police discretion over when a suspect is considered “in custody” or not.

“If we leave it to the police to decide when the cameras are going to be turned on, we are not going to learn everything that’s necessary,” O’Connor said.

The Assembly proposal would require all interviews at police stations regarding serious and violent felonies to be recorded in full. It also limits any exceptions for the police departments that do not record interrogations.

Cuomo’s proposal holds some exceptions, such as “inadvertent error or oversight,” for police stations that fail to record interrogations.

Rensselaer County Public Defender Art Frost, who represented Thomas, said law enforcement rarely intentionally solicits false confessions, but video recordings provide necessary oversight for interrogations that cross the line.

“Does it happen all the time? Of course not, but does it happen often enough that we ought to be terrified? Absolutely,” Frost said.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that require or recommend the audio and visual recording of statements made by people in police custody, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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