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Electronic Recording of Interrogations

Every year, hundreds of innocent Americans are convicted of crimes because of false confessions.
Of the first 142 DNA exonerations of wrongfully convicted persons, 35 of them—nearly one in four—had made false confessions.1 At least 300 innocent people are convicted of major crimes each year as a result of false confessions.2
Many more innocent Americans are imprisoned because of false confessions and later released.
It is impossible to count how many people have been charged based on false confessions but released after exonerating evidence is discovered. A Washington Post investigation into one jurisdiction—Prince George’s County, Maryland—described four egregious cases of homicide detectives who coerced confessions that were proven false, which resulted in charges being dropped before a trial.3 The Chicago Tribune conducted a similar study that found 247 instances in which a defendant’s self-incriminating statements were thrown out by a court or found insufficiently convincing by a jury.4
There are many reasons why innocent people “confess,” ranging from exhaustion to mental illness.
Psychologists report that standard police interrogation tactics regularly elicit false confessions from the mentally retarded, mentally ill, juveniles and other suspects who may not understand the legal system.5 Suspects who suffer from alcohol or drug problems are especially susceptible to psychologically powerful interrogation tactics. Isolation and sleep deprivation can lead to confusion, temporary psychosis and even hallucinations. After 28 hours in an interrogation room, Keith Longtin began to believe police suggestions that he had a split personality and that his “other self” had murdered his wife. He spent eight months in jail until DNA evidence fingered the real killer.6
Electronic recording of interrogations helps to protect the innocent and convict the guilty.
When interrogations are audio- or videotaped, police and prosecutors have a permanent record of suspects’ statements and gestures. Aside from its investigative value, the recording can also verify that officers treated suspects fairly. As a result:
  • Voluntary confessions are indisputable. Recordings allow officers to defend themselves against unwarranted claims of abusive conduct while deterring investigators from using improper tactics to elicit confessions.
  • Officers can concentrate on a suspect’s demeanor and statements without the distraction of detailed note-taking. Recordings mean officers don’t have to struggle to recall details of interviews weeks or months after they occur.
  • Review of recordings allows officers to retrieve leads and identify inconsistent statements that were overlooked during interviews.
  • Recordings are valuable for training new officers in proper interrogation techniques.
  • Electronic recording boosts public confidence in police practices.7
Six states—AK, IL, ME, MN, NM and WI—and many cities and counties require electronic recording of interrogations.
In 2003, Illinois became the first state to enact legislation that requires electronic recording. The Maine and New Mexico legislatures followed suit in 2004 and 2005. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered electronic recording of all juvenile interrogations. Two other states, Minnesota and Alaska, have employed the practice for years. The Minnesota Supreme Court decided that custodial interrogations must be recorded “to ensure the fair and equitable presentation of evidence at trial” in 1984.8 In 1985, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that an unexcused failure to record custodial interrogations violated the suspect’s right to due process under the state constitution.9 Other major jurisdictions that require electronic recording include Austin, Texas; Denver, Colorado; San Diego County, California; and Broward County, Florida.
Law enforcement agencies that use electronic recording have proven its value.
Ninety-seven percent of police departments that have videotaped suspects’ statements found the practice useful, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study.10 A 2004 survey of 238 law enforcement agencies that currently record custodial interrogations found that “virtually every officer with whom [they] spoke, having given custodial recordings a try, was enthusiastically in favor of the practice.”11 Judges favor electronic recording because it streamlines the judicial process, and prosecutors and police argue that it helps to disprove phony claims of misconduct. In jurisdictions that tape custodial interrogations, motions by the defense to suppress a confession have declined, and guilty pleas have increased.
The cost of electronic recording is more than offset by savings.
The only real argument against electronic recording is that cameras are costly to taxpayers. However, such technology—especially when purchased in bulk—has become quite inexpensive. Additionally, electronic recording saves tax money because it reduces multi-million dollar awards in false arrest and police misconduct lawsuits, dramatically lowers the number of time-consuming evidence suppression hearings, and encourages more plea agreements before trial. Electronic recording also helps to prevent crimes by keeping police focused on the guilty rather than the innocent. For example, in the case of Keith Longtin, cited above, the real killer sexually assaulted seven more women while Longtin languished in jail. These crimes could have been prevented if law enforcement officers had kept working to solve the case.
  1. Steven Drizin and Marissa Reich, “Heeding the Lessons of History: The Need for Mandatory Recording of Police Interrogations to Accurately Assess the Reliability and Voluntariness of Confessions,” Drake Law Review, 2004.
  2. Richard P. Conti, “The Psychology of False Confessions,” The Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology, 1999.
  3. April Witt, “Allegations of Abuses Mar Murder Cases,” Washington Post, June 3, 2001.
  4. Ken Armstrong, Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, “Coercive and illegal tactics torpedo scores of Cook County murder cases,” Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2001.
  5. Saul Kassin and Gisli Gudjonsson, “Mandatory Videotaping of All Police Interviews and Interrogations May Decrease False Confessions,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2005.
  6. “Allegations of Abuses Mar Murder Cases.”
  7. Thomas Sullivan, “Electronic Recording of Custodial Interrogations: Everybody Wins,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 2005.
  8. Minnesota v. Scales, 518 N.W.2d 587 (Minn. 1984).
  9. Stephan v. State, 711 P.2d 1156 (Alaska 1985).
  10. William Geller, “Police Videotaping of Suspect Interrogations and Confessions,” Report to the National Institute of Justice, 1992.
  11. Thomas Sullivan, “Police Experiences with Recording Custodial Interrogations,” Northwestern University School of Law, Center on Wrongful Convictions, 2004.