Lawmakers listened to public testimony Monday for a proposed bill that would prohibit police from knowingly lying to people under 18 years old during interrogation.
If passed into law, Senate Bill 1071 would deem a minor’s admission, confession or statement to police inadmissible if it was obtained through deceptive or coercive interrogation tactics, such as lying about evidence, making false promises or depriving the person being interrogated of physical or mental health needs. A similar bill failed during the 2022 legislative session.
At a public hearing Monday, proponents of the bill spoke about the consequences of police lying to minors, including pushing them to make confessions about crimes they didn’t commit.
“Deceptive interrogation tactics ultimately harm the people who our state has made the most vulnerable, such as people of color, children and people with mental or physical disabilities,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance. “Children are taught to trust police at a young age. Children also want to please those that are in their authority or will tell an authority figure what that person wants to hear just to get them to stop berating them or asking them questions.”
At least 29% of wrongful convictions in the state have involved a false confession, according to ACLU Connecticut. The proposed law would give the state the opportunity to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that an admission, confession or statement was obtained lawfully.
Testifying in support of the bill, TaShun Bowden-Lewis, the state’s chief public defender, said she’s had several clients throughout her career as an attorney — namely children and young adults — who were “coerced” by police into making statements that were incorrect.
“It’s important in our criminal justice system to be able to deal with facts and truth,” Bowden-Lewis said. “I truly believe that this legislation, if passed, is going to do more good than anything else, for all parties. … Being able to ensure that a person who is actually confessing to a crime, any kind of crime, actually did it is important.”
The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association also provided testimony on the legislation, saying it understands and supports the bill’s intent. But it also wants to make certain changes.
For instance, in a section that partly defines coercive or deceptive tactics as using or threatening physical force, law enforcement officials recommended adding language that would allow police to use force in situations necessary to prevent injury.
“There are times when physical force is needed in an interrogation where the individual might attempt to hurt themselves or harm somebody else,” said Vernon Riddick, chief of the West Hartford Police Department and a vice president of the association.
The bill as currently written also defines coercive or deceptive tactics as communicating “false facts about evidence that were known or should have been known to be false.” The organization recommended new language that would make it unlawful only when police lie “intentionally and without justification.”
Asked about the police chief association’s proposed changes, Barbara Fair of Stop Solitary CT, a campaign dedicated to humane treatment in correctional facilities, called the language a loophole that could be exploited.
“All the years of following legislation, one thing that I’ve learned a lot is the language that’s put in there, that’s introduced … that just leaves a road block for people to circumvent. I think the original language works,” she said.
Meanwhile, some Republicans signaled opposition to the bill.
During an exchange with Riddick, Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, pushed back against previous testimony by others arguing children aren’t old enough to make decisions for themselves during police interrogation. He asked questions attempting to clarify that adults have to give their consent for police to question minors.
And during a back-and-forth with Robert Goodrich, co-founder of Racial Advocates for Cross Cultural Education and a supporter of the bill, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said if an officer can’t lie, then he would want “the accused not to lie.”
“I think police officers should have whatever tactics available to them that don’t violate constitutional rights,” said Fishbein, who also serves as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
But Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the committee, called attention to instances where parents may have waived the rights of their children “because they thought it was better” even though it may not have turned out to be the case. He also emphasized how innocent people may lie to the police out of fear.
Monday’s hearing marked the second time the public and lawmakers have discussed the bill. Legislators, local organizers, national experts and exonerees held a press conference last week urging the bill’s passage this session.
One of the exonerees at that gathering was Terrill Swift from Chicago, who at 17 years old was falsely convicted of the 1994 sexual assault and murder of Nina Glover. He was coerced by police into signing a false confession. His charges, along with those of three other men, were dismissed in 2012.
“Ask yourself what type of trauma you would live with as a child if you were made out to be a monster by your community, if those you trusted to protect your community decided to make you guilty rather than investigate and do justice for a victim,” Swift testified Monday.
Nationally, more than half of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations are Black men, like Swift, according to a study from the University of Michigan. Another one of those people was Bobby Johnson in New Haven.
At 16 years old, police lied to Johnson — who could barely read or write — and said there was physical evidence against him for the murder of Herbert Fields, which he didn’t commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Detectives promised him probation if he confessed to the crime and said the death penalty would come if he didn’t. And after being interrogated multiple times and forced to change his statement, Johnson pleaded guilty to murder in 2007 and was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
His charge was dismissed in 2015.
James Williams, a member of the West Haven Republican Town Committee, told lawmakers that it seems like police are more worried about pinning a crime on a suspect rather than identifying the person who’s actually responsible.
“This has led to innocent men and women of all racial backgrounds to be falsely imprisoned,” said Williams, who is Black. “The point of an interrogation is to find out the facts or close to the facts of what happened at a crime scene at any given time. Police officers must understand: The minute you charge a Connecticut resident of a crime, that’s the minute their legal trouble starts, in which the suspect can lose their job, their home and their freedom.”