MONTPELIER -- The state’s attorneys and sheriffs oppose legislation that would require videotaping of police interviews with defendants. An association representing the county prosecutors and police says the recording equipment would be too costly.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office questions whether recordings would be required for interviews conducted outside a detention area.
The Senate and House Judiciary committees are considering a bill that would require police to record interviews with homicide and sexual assault suspects.
An assistant attorney general and a representative of state’s attorneys and sheriffs testified Friday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on two bills aimed at preventing innocent people from landing behind bars.
The Innocence Project, a national policy group, wrote both of the bills, which are sponsored by state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington.
In a joint session on Thursday, the committees heard testimony from a Massachusetts man exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 19 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. It also heard from Jennifer Thompson, a North Carolina woman who misidentified the man who raped her in 1984.
Lawmakers heard from a Massachusetts police chief who said his department always records interviews in the police station with witnesses and never asks an officer to conduct a photo array in a case he or she is investigating.
Bram Kranichfeld, the new executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs Association, said departments would love to record every interview, but it would be too expensive.
"We would ask that if you are going to move forward with this that you include some kind of a funding mechanism," he said.
Kranichfeld said the reason the bill would cost so much is because police would have to install cameras in cruisers, which can cost as much as $5,000 each.
Senators said the intent of the law is not to force officers to record in the field, but Kranichfeld said because the definition of "place of detention" is vague, officers would need to err on the side of caution and record all interviews to avoid damaging their cases in court.
And because an officer can’t know whether a traffic stop might lead to a felony confession or other type of crime where an interview should be recorded, they would have to record all interviews, Kranichfeld said.
"The intent is not to do that," said state Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden.
Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell said his office is "generally supportive" of the bills, but he has concerns about some of definitions in the recording bill.
One concern was the definition of "place of detention," which in the bill is defined as a law enforcement facility or "other place where a person is questioned in connection with a criminal charge or delinquent act."
That broad wording could be interpreted to mean on the street or in a person’s home, Treadwell said.
One other concern, Treadwell said, is that the bill only asks that departments create a policy with certain minimum requirements. But if best practices change, the law would need to be changed.
Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, is in favor of the bill.
"I don’t think that anybody who deals with these issues on a regular basis, who’s invested in kind of the good forensic science that we know about custodial interrogations and eyewitness interrogation policies, is against what these bills are calling for," he said.
Valerio recommended the bill about recordings, S.297, be expanded to include all felonies and any case that has an element of serious bodily injury or death or anything with a maximum sentence of 15 years or more.
"There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be recorded," he said.
Valerio said he is comfortable with the exceptions to the policy that the bill includes. They include if a witness refuses or if equipment malfunctions. Valerio said those have been roadblocks to passage of similar bills in the past.
"On somewhat of a regular basis," he said, the state has had to litigate over a disputed confession and that could be avoided with recordings, he said.
"It’s time, I think, to tell law enforcement that now you’ve got to do it," he said.
The committee also spoke with Thomas Sullivan, a former Illinois U.S. attorney, by phone Friday morning.
The committee was scheduled to hear further testimony from Glenn Hall, commander of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, Capt. JP Sinclair, chief criminal investigator at the Department of Public Safety, attorney Stephen Saltonstall and Timothy Burgess, of the Women Against the Registry and Reform of Sex Offender Laws, according to the committee agenda.
Laura Krantz is VTDigger’s criminal justice and corrections reporter. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.