Recorded-interrogation bill moves through committee, despite some concerns

By Matt Bittle
Posted 6/9/21

DOVER — A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would require electronic recordings of police interrogations.

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Recorded-interrogation bill moves through committee, despite some concerns


DOVER — A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would require electronic recordings of police interrogations.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to send the bill to the full chamber for a debate, although it is likely some changes may be coming after the Department of Justice and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council expressed concerns about the specifics of the measure.

House Bill 215 would mandate that law enforcement record most interrogations, so as to protect both the public and police and strengthen the criminal justice system by preventing individuals from being convicted based on false confessions.

“Confessions are powerful and often critical pieces of evidence,” main sponsor Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, told the committee. “They’re sometimes the difference between guilt and innocence.”

The bill contains exceptions for extraordinary circumstances, equipment malfunctions, cases where a suspect refuses to have an interrogation recorded, instances where a recording could “disclose the identity of a confidential informant or jeopardize the safety of an officer, the individual being interrogated, or another individual.”

Under the measure, any unrecorded confession that does not fall under one of the exemptions would be inadmissible.

James Trainum, a retired Washington, D.C., police officer, testified in support, explaining that he was involved in an incident that almost sent a woman to jail over a false confession. After a lengthy interrogation about a homicide, the woman admitted to the crime, only for police to later determine she could not have done it.

Thankfully, law enforcement was able to discover the truth before she was put on trial, which could have resulted in an innocent person languishing in jail had they not done so. They were aided by a recording of the interrogation, helping police realize subtle and often unintentional ways she was pressured into confessing, Mr. Trainum said.

Individuals who confess to a crime they did not commit often do so under extreme stress, motivated by a belief that the legal system will clear their names. Additionally, some have intellectual disabilities.

“We are all human, we are all fallible, and there’s power in recognizing that and implementing safeguards to protect our justice system,” said Megan Davies, executive director of the nonprofit Innocence Delaware.

But several speakers said that, while they support the concept, the bill has issues as written.

“It prescribes detailed mandates that unbalance the traditional balance regarding what should and shouldn’t be admissible in courts,” said J.S. Taylor, a deputy attorney general in the Department of Justice.

He expressed concern that the measure could lead to perpetrators of violent crime getting off scot-free because their confessions were not recorded. The bill is effectively an “unfunded mandate” that small municipalities might struggle with due to the cost of recording equipment, he said.

Police Chiefs’ Council Chairman Patrick Ogden, chief of the University of Delaware Police Department, agreed, emphasizing that he is willing to work with Rep. Minor-Brown to find an acceptable compromise.

Committee Chairman Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, pushed back against those claims, noting that the bill does not require any high-tech equipment. Most people have smartphones, and at any rate, a video camera can be purchased for less than $100, he said.

According to Innocence Delaware, 29 states require recording of interrogations, as does the federal government.

Tenant rights

On Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill to protect individuals from eviction by strengthening tenant rights.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 101 would provide a right to counsel for low-income individuals, prevent anyone from being evicted for failing to pay rent unless they owe $500 or one month’s rent (whichever is greater) and create a diversionary program in hopes of resolving disputes between tenants and landlords prior to eviction.

A low-income household is defined as one earning less annually than twice the federal poverty guideline. That guideline is currently $12,880 for one person, increasing by $4,540 for each additional individual in a home.

A 2017 University of Delaware Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy study of 300 evictions from Justice of the Peace Court 13, covering much of New Castle County, found that 98% of tenants lacked representation in court, while 86% of landlords had some type of counsel. Because there is no floor on evictions, six tenants were evicted for less than $50.

The study indicated that 150 cases resulted in possession judgment, enabling a landlord to move forward with an eviction, with about one-third of those leading to constables physically removing tenants. It also concluded that providing tenants a right to counsel, which under the bill would be overseen by the Department of Justice, “would redress the almost total lack of legal assistance for tenants in current Delaware eviction cases.”

The study said the Eviction Lab at Princeton estimated Delaware’s eviction rate to be 5.1%, greater than the national average.

“Additionally, guaranteed counsel for tenants would provide tenants access to social services and other resources to either pay their rent or avoid homelessness,” the UD study said. “Tenant attorneys would provide another layer of support for desperate tenants with few options during and after an eviction. This means the number of ugly, forced removals of tenants would decrease while deals and voluntary moves would increase.

“This would save county resources that are now needed to carry out these evictions,” it continued. “Keeping cases out of court with more outside negotiations would have positive long-term effects for tenants. This is because interactions with landlord/tenant court, regardless of outcome, can have negative long-term consequences as eviction cases are public records that are accessible online.”

The bill would establish an initiative modeled after the Delaware Automatic Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program, which has helped more than 62% of participants stay in their homes since its creation after the Great Recession. Tenants in the mediation process would be provided a designated housing counselor, and many landlord-tenant disputes would have to pass through the program before any formal legal action could be undertaken.

The legislation would also allow tenants to stay in their homes if they pay all past-due rent and any applicable fees after a possession judgment has been awarded but before an eviction has taken place.

The bill’s main sponsor noted that the measure still allows quick evictions if tenants are causing serious damage to a property.

“No one should be cast into the streets before being given every opportunity to uphold their end of a lease agreement and yet that’s what happens to more than 18,000 households every year,” Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said in a statement. “This legislation will restore balance to the system and produce better outcomes for families who are struggling to keep food on the table and (roofs) over their heads.”

By putting more steps in place before an eviction, the state as a whole will benefit, he told colleagues.

The proposal passed 13-7, with one member not voting due to a potential conflict of interest. It now goes to the House.