Legislators and lobbyists in the Connecticut state Capitol on Jan. 4, 2023, the first day of the legislative session. Stephen Busemeyer / CT Mirror

The House voted Wednesday to send to the governor a bill limiting the use of deceptive or coercive tactics during police interrogations. 

After advancing on an 80-70 vote, with one lawmaker absent, Senate Bill 1071 now awaits Gov. Ned Lamont’s signature for final passage. Sixteen Democrats sided with the Republican minority in opposition. The legislation made it through the Senate along party lines earlier this month, 24-12. 

If signed into law, the bill will deem an admission, confession or statement to police inadmissible or involuntary if it was obtained through deception or coercive interrogation tactics, such as depriving a person of their physical or mental health needs, or using or threatening physical force, the unlawful arrest of another individual or imposing unlawful penalties on the person under interrogation or another person. 

The legislation carves out additional protections for minors by expanding the definition to include lying about evidence, misrepresenting the law and making false promises of leniency. 

“Children should be safe and protected everywhere, including when they’re in a police interrogation room, facing down police who have handcuffs and guns,” Claudine Constant, public policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement. “It’s wrong to lie to children in our daily lives, and it’s especially wrong, although currently legal, for police to lie to children during interrogations.

“Deceptive police interrogations most harm people whom our state has made most vulnerable, including Black and Latinx youth and people with disabilities. We are thrilled that today, the legislature took a stand for protecting children and against deceptive police interrogation tactics, and we urge Governor Lamont to sign this bill quickly,” the statement says.

While none of the Democrats who voted against the bill publicly spoke against it on the House floor, Republicans asserted that there was no recent data or anecdotal evidence to suggest that police actually use deceptive or coercive tactics, and that the bill would restrict law enforcement from doing their jobs effectively — the same grounds for their disapproval of a landmark police accountability bill in 2020.

“We haven’t established any need at all,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the top House Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “By us having to debate … it makes the public perception that officers are doing these things in the state of Connecticut. And that is not the case.”

But eight out of 31 wrongful convictions in Connecticut, or 23%, documented by the National Registry of Exonerations involved a false confession, with the most recent conviction happening in 2018. It is unclear how many wrongful convictions with false confessions have gone unsolved or unreported.  

Further, the bill was revised with input from the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, an organization of police officials in departments across the state, who earlier this year said it supported the intent of the legislation — as did the Division of Criminal Justice and the Office of the Chief Public Defender.

GOP lawmakers also took issue with a part of the bill that provides the state an opportunity to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that an admission, confession or statement was obtained lawfully, leading to a proposed amendment to lower the standard to a preponderance of evidence. The amendment failed. 

They also sought an amendment to strike a line in the bill that partly defines deception and coercive tactics as communicating “false facts about evidence that were known to the law enforcement agency official or their agent or should have been known to the law enforcement agency official or their agent to be false.” 

Rep. Greg Howard, who works in law enforcement, said that he sees it as necessary in limited circumstances “to misrepresent certain facts” in pursuit of the truth, not to force a confession. If the amendment passed, he said, the bill would have earned his support. But it also failed. 

“I’ve always tried to make a distinction between police accountability, that is holding police officers accountable when they do it wrong, and police restrictions, that is restricting their ability to get their job done,” said Howard, R-Stonington, the top House Republican on the Public Safety and Security Committee. “I think the two get conflated often. This bill, quite simply, to me, is the latter versus good policy.” 

In response, Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, highlighted the impact of wrongful convictions through the story of Kenneth Ireland, who was indicted for the sexual assault and murder of Barbara Pelkey, a 30-year-old mother of four. Ireland, who was implicated by people who claimed they witnessed the crime, spent 19 years in prison before DNA evidence demonstrated his innocence, in 2009. 

“He lost two decades of his life. He was only a kid when he was picked up. He lost parenthood. He lost his professional life,” Mushinsky said. “We must be right. We must be certain when we convict. We must make it illegal to use coercion or trickery, or deceptive interrogations. All these things should be illegal. We have to be sure.”

The bill’s passage coincides with ongoing legislative efforts by some to establish more accountability around the criminal legal system. A landmark police accountability bill signed into law during the summer of 2020 — frequently referenced in the three legislative sessions after — opened the door for people to, in the most egregious of circumstances, sue officers who violate their civil rights. 

Earlier on Wednesday, the House advanced Senate Bill 1070 to Lamont’s desk, a bill to require each of the 13 state’s attorneys to appear annually in front of the Criminal Justice Commission to publicly testify about certain case level data, such as arrests, arraignments and demographics of people being prosecuted.

But debates have at times undermined the concerns of people whose stories can attest to the system’s shortcomings, particularly those of Black residents.

Of the 31 documented wrongful convictions in Connecticut, 15 of the people were Black. And while every wrongful conviction doesn’t necessarily indicate deception or coercive tactics, the subject of Wednesday’s conversation, some do. Bobby Johnson in New Haven lay witness.

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. 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. 

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.