A bill set to be considered by the Delaware House of Representatives would make it illegal for police to lie to children during interrogations.
House Bill 419, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-Wilmington, would ban the use of deceptive tactics, such as making misleading statements about evidence or offering false promises of leniency to extract a confession or other incriminating evidence from a minor.
According to the bill’s synopsis, Delaware has yet to have a wrongful conviction case involving a false confession from a child, though wrongful convictions may often take decades to be revealed.
Oregon, Illinois and Utah have banned police deception during the interrogation of juvenile suspects, while Colorado and California are currently considering similar legislation.
HB 419 was released from the House Judiciary Committee and will advance to the House floor for a vote.
“We’re not just talking about potential false confessions,” said Megan Davies, executive director of Innocence Delaware. “We’re talking about other potential false evidence that impacts the credibility of convictions in our state.”
Davies said children’s brains are not equipped to handle the stress of police interrogations.
“We know, especially with juvenile brain science, they’re not equipped to handle police interrogations,” she said. “Most adults, frankly, aren’t, but juveniles especially — we know their brains are not developed.”
When children are informed of their right to remain silent and also told that they can help themselves by talking to the police, they’re not fully understanding their rights, Davies said. As a result, courts are not getting reliable confessions and children’s rights are not being protected.
Some examples of deception in juvenile interrogations might include falsely stating fingerprints or DNA evidence was found at a crime scene or telling a child that their friend “flipped on them” when that is not the case.
AJ Roop, state prosecutor with the Delaware Department of Justice, said the attorney general’s office supports HB 419.
“We think this will be a good addition to the robust use of cameras in interviews that police have been using in Delaware, quite frankly, for a very long time,” Roop said.
He said Minor-Brown has worked with the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies to carve out exceptions to the law that will be detailed in a yet-to-be-introduced amendment.
“The presumption is that if you are a juvenile and a deceptive tactic is used, that is inadmissible,” Roop said. “What the amendment will do is it will allow, in certain circumstances, for the DOJ to pursue using that particular statement if there are certain safeguards in place and there’s an analysis that the court can engage on whether that statement should ultimately come into evidence.”
Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services with the Delaware Office of Defense Services said her agency supports HB 419.
“Scientific research in adolescent brain development has proven what parents knew all along: children are different,” Minutola said. “Their thinking simply has not matured in the areas of decision making or problem-solving. They’re reactive – they’re guided by their emotions and less by logic. They are susceptible to pressure and suggestibility and focus on short term rewards rather than long term consequences.”
Jeff Horvath, executive director of the Delaware Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group has been engaged in drafting the legislation and its members are confident their concerns will be addressed in the amendment.
The bill will now advance to the House floor for a vote.
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