Keeping the system honest by recording interrogations

The Michigan House recently passed a bill that would require police to record all interrogations of serious felony cases, such as murder and armed robbery. Supporters of the bill say this requirement will make the system more honest and fair. Based on my personal experiences as a prosecutor and defense attorney, I agree.

Some police departments already have implemented systems of routine recordings of interrogations. These departments have found that recordings have produced powerful evidence to use at trial. "A videotaped statement by the defendant is a critical piece of information that needs to be preserved," said Victor Lauria, assistant police chief in Novi.

The use of the technology not only provides police with evidence, but it also keeps the interrogation process honest. An officer's knowledge of being on tape during an interrogation and the ability to playback the interrogation will increase the reliability and trustworthiness of the interrogation.

As a state-court prosecutor in New York City, the NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office routinely taped statements. Doing so left no doubt as to what was said. It protects the accused when officers may otherwise cross the line in an interrogation if they are not being taped. It also protects the officers from false allegations of coercion and duress.

As a federal prosecutor in Detroit, I was surprised by the antiquated policies and procedures of some federal agencies that refuse to record interrogations. These policies remain in force today.

Under the state bill, which would not necessarily apply to the feds, juries would be advised of the requirement of police to record interrogations. Some police officials have raised concerns about the malfunctioning of recording equipment that would prevent them from recording the interrogations. "Has your cell phone ever dropped a call?" states Northville police chief Gary Goss. He is concerned that criminal cases may be damaged because of an equipment error. However, others say a provision that allows police to explain why a recording was not made should solve this problem.