Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bill aims at curbing deceptive police interrogation tactics for intellectually disabled

Police reform measures may have lost some of the momentum they had in Harrisburg in the days after last April’s conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, but that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from continuing to press the case for badly needed change, according to Pennsylvania Capitol Journal.

The newest proposal comes from state Rep. Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, who’s currently seeking co-sponsors for a bill aimed at protecting Pennsylvanians who live with intellectual disabilities from deceptive police interrogation tactics.

“A leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States are false confessions secured through deceptive interrogation tactics,” Hanbidge, an attorney, wrote in an Aug. 4 ‘Dear Colleague’ memo. “Individuals with intellectual disabilities and/or Autism have greater vulnerability to deception interrogation by law enforcement.”

To buttress her arguments, Hanbidge pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a 2002 known as Atkins v. Virginia. There, the high court, in a 6-3 vote, determined that executing people with intellectual disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In that case, the high court “recognized that people with intellectual disability are at higher risk for wrongful convictions and are more likely to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit,” Hanbidge wrote.

Such false confessions, obtained through deceptive interrogation tactics, “put not only the accused at risk but undermine the sanctity of our judicial system,” she added.

In his majority opinion, then-Justice John Paul Stevens made the distinction between mentally disabled defendants and those without such disabilities clear.

“Mentally [disabled] persons who meet the law’s requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes,” Stevens wrote. “Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.”

Stevens went on to acknowledge the risk that “the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty … is enhanced, not only by the possibility of false confessions … but also by the lesser ability of mentally retarded defendants to make a persuasive showing of mitigation in the face of prosecutorial evidence of one or more aggravating factors.”

Research also supports the conclusion that people living with intellectual disabilities are more prone to false confessions.

In a 2018 Stanford Law Review article examining the cases of 245 people who were exonerated as a result of false confessions, researcher Samson J. Schatz found that more than a quarter “[displayed] indicia of intellectual disability.

“This percentage dwarfs the prevalence of people with intellectual disabilities in the general population and even exceeds most estimates of the proportion of the prison population suffering from intellectual disabilities,” Schatz wrote.

In her memo to colleagues, Hanbidge said her bill “seeks to prevent deceptive interrogation tactics from being used on individuals with autism and/or intellectual disabilities, thus reducing the number of false convictions, saving money and ensuring equality and dignity to all.

“Confessions made due to such tactics would become inadmissible in court, unless the state can prove that the confession was voluntarily given,” Hanbidge continued. “By implementing fair, honest interrogation processes… those most susceptible to falsely confess will be better protected from deceptive practices.”

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