New York Reform Law to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Since 1989, New York state has wrongfully convicted over 200 individuals of crimes. In addition to the obvious miscarriage of justice, in 38% of those cases DNA evidence has now been used to identify the actual perpetrators, some of whom have gone on to commit additional violent crimes.

For these reasons, lawmakers in New York State are working to pass reforms that will prevent wrongful convictions. The bills, S5875 and A8157, would tighten procedures on two key police investigative tools, suspect interviews and photo arrays, both frequent culprits in wrongful convictions. And one of the key remedies would be mandated recording of police interviews.

The changes to photo array identification are designed to decrease incidents of visible officer bias or witness leading by ensuring that the arrays are created and presented by officers with no knowledge of which individual in the array is a suspect. This procedure actually improves the array’s value as evidentiary material. Previously, photo arrays were not admissible in New York courts, but under the new law they would be. This is particularly important in a state like New York; although most people visualize New York City, much of this large state is relatively rural, making line-ups impractical and difficult to accomplish.

The new legislation also mandates recorded interviews in cases involving class A-1 felony or violent felony charges. While courts are barred from suppressing a confession simply because it was not recorded, the legislation would allow the court to consider the lack of a recording as a factor when determining the confession’s admissibility as evidence.

There are exceptions written into the wording of the bills, though some of these may end up being tested in the courts in the future if the legislation passes. For example, equipment malfunction is cited as one acceptable reason for the lack of a recorded interview. We predict that it will be important to have a record of purchasing and maintaining quality equipment, so that there is no question that claims of equipment malfunction are exceptions, not the rule.

On the other hand, protection of confidential informants, spontaneous utterances, and unexpected confessions by individuals who were not considered suspects are all protected instances. So is a confession that takes place in a locale unequipped with cameras, such as a hospital, though this clearly demonstrates the advantages of mobile recording equipment.

While S5875 has passed the Senate, A8157 remains in committee. If the bills pass, New York will join more than 15 states and the Department of Justice in requiring videoed interrogations under specific circumstances. As high-quality digital video and audio prove their worth, we predict this trend will only continue to rise.

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