HARTFORD, CT – Lawmakers in the Connecticut House of Representatives narrowly approved a proposal Wednesday making confessions from juvenile suspects largely inadmissible in state courts if police obtained the admissions using deceptive tactics like lying or misrepresenting evidence.
The chamber sent the bill to the governor’s desk on a divided 80-70 vote with 16 Democrats joining every Republican in opposition. The Senate approved the policy on a party-line vote earlier this month.
During an afternoon floor debate, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the proposal sought to ensure the reliability of statements made by minors in police custody in an effort to curtail the number of false confessions and wrongful convictions.
“It’s not about preventing police from doing their jobs. It’s not about making it harder for police to do their job. What this bill is about is making sure the right person confesses to the crime,” he said. “We are protecting not just suspects but, frankly, are protecting victims from basically thinking that the right person who committed the crime has been charged.”
Connecticut and most other states allow police to present false information during interrogations, a practice affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. The bill would see Connecticut join states like Illinois and Oregon in taking steps to prohibit deceptive interviews of minor suspects.
If signed by Gov. Ned Lamont, the proposal will create a rebuttable presumption that the confessions of people under 18 years old were involuntary if the officers conducting an interrogation lied about evidence, the law, or made misleading promises in exchange for leniency.
The bill includes a provision allowing the information to be readmitted if the prosecutors can offer “clear and convincing evidence” that the admission was not secured by deception and the tactics used did not undermine the reliability of the suspect’s statements.
During Wednesday’s debate, Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, said he agreed with many elements of the bill including its provisions dissuading interrogators from misrepresenting the law.
However, Howard said there were limited circumstances where police effectively use lies to expose lies in the testimony of their suspects. In Connecticut, interrogations are recorded and police tactics can easily be reviewed, he argued.
“Police officers in this state are not trained to go into an interrogation to get a confession. It’s very clear about that,” he said. “Police officers in this state are trained to go in and try to uncover the truth, whatever that truth may be and sometimes it involves misrepresenting facts in order to get to the actual truth.”
Howard tried unsuccessfully to remove the language by amending the bill. Another amendment, to lower the threshold for readmitting evidence gained through deceptive tactics, also failed to gain adequate support.
Proponents argued that lies and misrepresentations should be avoided or even illegal. Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, pointed to the case of Kenneth Ireland, a Wallingford man who served 21 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was eventually exonerated after DNA evidence implicated another man.
The state paid out $6 million to Ireland as compensation for more than two decades in prison.
“We must be right, we must be certain when we convict. We must make it illegal to use coercion or trickery or deceptive interrogations,” Mushinsky said. “We have to be sure.”