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Bill seeks to expand videotaped police interrogations

December 28, 2011 | 11:18 am

LauraAfter advising crime suspects of their rights, more police may also be saying, "roll the videotape'' if proposed legislation makes it through Congress.

The Custodial Interrogation Recording Act seeks to increase police interrogation recordings of suspects by making federal grants available to pay for equipment and videotape training.

Proponents of videotaping contend it can help attorneys, judges and jurors assess the validity of confessions and whether they were coerced. It also can help police withstand false allegations of misconduct, they say.

While many police agencies record interrogations, costs have often been cited in state legislative battles over whether to require it.

The bill by Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) would reduce the likelihood that a criminal suspect may give a false confession and "help to improve public confidence in the fairness and professionalism of policing,'' according to a summary of the measure provided by her office.  

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a blue-ribbon panel created to study problems in the criminal justice system that put innocent people in jail, called in 2006 for taping interrogations of felony suspects in custody.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed legislation that would have required it. In his 2007 veto, he said it would "deny law enforcement the flexibility necessary to interrogate suspects."

Chris Boscia, who served as the commission’s executive assistant, said that more police agencies might be willing to tape interrogations if the federal government provides financial aid.

"I don't think cost is the chief obstacle, though,’’ Gerald F. Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who was the commission’s executive director, said in an e-mail."There is just strong police resistance to anyone, including legislators, telling them how to do their job. They are also concerned that malfunctioning equipment will create credibility problems for them.’’

Curtis J.Hill, legislative representative of the California State Sheriff's Assn., called the measure "promising.''

But he said many law enforcement officials remain concerned about requiring recording.

"What if the recording equipment fails....intimating that the police interrogators did that on purpose in order to mask some unprofessional behavior?'' He said law enforcement officials also are concerned about when the term "in custody" comes into play. 

"What if the guy makes a spontaneous comment as we're sitting him down in the back of the patrol car?'' Hill said.

The federal legislation does not require recording. But Richardson, in a summary of the bill, said the measure would "lessen the cost disincentive’’ for states that don’t require taping.

"The human memory is incapable of reproducing, no matter how many notes you take, precisely what was said,’’ said Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago who is a strong advocate of recording custodial interrogations. "If you videotape it, then you get the inflections and the body movements that sometimes can indicate sincerity or lack thereof.''

He said that police should welcome videotaping. " ... You get rid of the argument that the police didn’t give me my Miranda warnings, that the police threatened me, or that they now are testifying falsely about what I said."

Richardson did not specify the total amount of money she is seeking for the proposed grants. While any legislation that calls for new federal spending faces a steep climb in Congress at a time of high budget deficits, the legislation could strike a chord with President Obama.

As an llinois state senator, he pushed for legislation, signed into law in 2003, that required police to tape interrogations of murder suspects.

Richardson introduced similar legislation last year near the end of the session. Her bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: Rep. Laura Richardson in 2009. Credit:  Christine Otter/Los Angeles Times

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