No child should be imprisoned because police coerced them into a false confession.
But right now, it’s legal for police in Connecticut to lie to children during interrogations in order to extract false confessions. Under Connecticut law, police are allowed, during an interrogation, to lie to children about evidence and leniency, to threaten to hurt them, and to deny their physical and mental health needs.
Police lying during interrogations, known as “deceptive police interrogation tactics,” has hurt children in Connecticut and across the country, leading states like California, Delaware, Illinois, Oregon, and Utah to pass laws seeking to end the practice. This year, the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would ban deceptive interrogations by police for anyone under the age of 18. With our friends at the Innocence Project, the ACLU of Connecticut is pushing for legislators to pass it into law.
Police deceptive interrogation tactics lack scientific support, frequently result in false confessions, harm wrongfully convicted people and their families and crime victims and their families, and have cost Connecticut at least $48 million.
Deceptive interrogation tactics by police frequently hurt innocent people by resulting in false confessions, and they most often harm the people whom our state has made most vulnerable: people of color, youth, and people with mental or physical disabilities.
Youth should be safe and protected everywhere, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. That includes when a child is sitting in a police interrogation room, without parents or guardians, facing the potential lifelong harm of a criminal record and the dangerousness of police, who hold handcuffs, guns, and tasers.
The power imbalance between a police interrogator and a child is enormous. That’s magnified even more for Black and Latinx children. Because of systemic racism, policing disproportionately targets Black and Latinx youth. Research suggests that biases held by police officers lead to more intense interrogation tactics against people of color who are accused of a crime, and this bears out in the fact that Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in exoneration databases and false confessions.
Yet children are not protected from police lying during an interrogation. Nationwide, of the 211 exonerees who were wrongfully convicted as children, 36 percent falsely confessed. At least 29 percent of Connecticut’s wrongful convictions involve false confessions, including people who were children at the time when police lied to them to coerce a false confession.
Bobby Johnson, a Connecticut resident, was just 16 years old when New Haven police interrogated him without his parents present. During the interrogation, police falsely told Johnson that he was facing the death penalty and that he would never see his parents again unless he confessed. Detectives interrogated him multiple times to force him to change is coerced confession to fit new evidence. Johnson, who testing indicated had a mental disability, was sentenced to 38 years in prison and ultimately spent eight years in prison before a judge vacated his conviction.
Peter Reilly was 18 years old when he was interrogated by police in Connecticut about his mother’s murder. During the 25-hour interrogation, police denied Reilly food and legal counsel and told him, falsely, that he had failed a lie detector test, coercing and confusing him into a confession. Reilly was sentenced to 6 to 16 years in prison before a judge dismissed his conviction.
Let’s say it again, plainly: police lied by telling Johnson, a 16-year-old disabled Black boy, that he would never see his loved ones again unless he confessed to a crime that he did not do. Police lied by telling Reilly, an 18-year-old boy whom they had deprived of food for more than a day, and whose mother had been brutally murdered, that the evidence showed he had killed her. Police held all the power in these situations, and they used it to manipulate vulnerable teens – hurting those children and their families, and depriving crime victims and their loved ones (including Peter Reilly) of accountability for the people truly responsible.
The human costs of police deceptive interrogation tactics in Connecticut have been bad enough, but the financial costs have also been high. Lawsuits from wrongful convictions involving deceptive police interrogations have cost Connecticut’s taxpayers at least $37.5 million in state compensation and an additional $10.74 million in civil settlements. The state also pays more human and financial costs when cases involving false confessions are re-opened, the actual offender is identified, and the case is re-prosecuted.
The bill before Connecticut legislators right now would be a first step to change that. Senate Bill 1071, An Act Concerning Deceptive or Coercive Interrogation Tactics, would make a police interview with a person under the age of 18 unusable in court if the police interrogators knowingly used false “facts,” false promises of leniency, or threats during the interrogation, as well as if police threated to use force or denied the person’s physical and/or mental health needs. The bill gives the courts discretion to determine if a confession is reliable based on evidence the state presents to support it.
So if, for example, police lied to a child by saying “we have your fingerprints on the gun,” when they knew they did not, that interrogation wouldn’t be usable in court. If police threatened a child by saying, for instance, “if you don’t cooperate, we will go for the death penalty” (as they did to Bobby Johnson), when police knew they didn’t have the authority to do that (Connecticut does not have the death penalty), the interrogation would not be usable in court.
Make no mistake – no one, child or adult, should be imprisoned because police lied to them during an interrogation. This bill would be a first step toward ending this deceitful manipulation of children, who are some of the most vulnerable people in interrogations. The ACLU of Connecticut will keep fighting to end police lying during interrogations for all people, children and adults.