New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law last week requiring police to videotape all interrogations of youth, adding what legal advocates and law enforcement have hailed as an extra layer of protection for young people who often don’t fully understand their legal rights.
The legislation is the latest effort to reform the juvenile justice system following passage of the state’s Raise the Age laws, which were fully implemented last year and shifted most 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult courts and lockups. A bill signed into law in the fall allows youth to challenge burdensome court fees, and pending legislation would strengthen their right to remain silent.
The new videotaping mandate, sponsored by state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, was requested by the second-highest judge in the state court system and will take effect in November 2021.
Montgomery named it the “Central Park 5 Bill” in honor of the five Black and Latino teens who were ages 14 to 16 in 1989 when police interrogated them aggressively for hours without a lawyer, leading them to falsely confess to the violent rape of a woman jogging in the park. All five were convicted and served between six and 14 years behind bars, before another man confessed to being the sole perpetrator.
Montgomery said her bill is needed because, even today, kids are at risk of being in coercive situations with police. “Our children should never find themselves in a room alone with law enforcement and no record of the interaction,” she said.
Research has shown that teens are more likely to make false confessions than adults, especially when police use common interrogation tactics like telling lies and subjecting them to hours of questioning. A 2006 study of high school students in Iceland found that when youth were interrogated just once, only 3% made false confessions, but when they were questioned multiple times, that rate quadrupled to 12%.
Marty Tankleff’s case illustrates the need for closer oversight of police interrogations of youth: The Long Island native spent almost two decades behind bars after his parents were killed in their home in 1989. Tankleff denied harming them, but when a detective lied that his father had implicated him on his deathbed, the teen speculated aloud that he could have blacked out and committed the crime.
“It’s like having an 18-wheeler driving on your chest and you believe the only way to get that weight off your chest is by telling the police what they want to hear,” Tankleff told CBS News in 2007, the year his conviction was overturned.
Recently, even leaders in law enforcement have come out in support of videotaping interviews. In its 2018 guide to effective juvenile interrogation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called it “imperative” for police to videotape interviews and interrogations from start to finish, especially when the subject is a minor.
Legal advocates agree, and say requiring officers to record interrogations can help prevent some of the tactics that can lead youth to incriminate themselves.
“A videotape reduces the risk because folks who might use questionable tactics to extract statements will have to tone it down,” said Gregg Stankewicz, director of the adolescent defense project at the Bronx Defenders. “Preserving the precise language is also important for attorneys to be able to point out any subtle manipulation that’s taking place.”
Some advocates say the new law does not go far enough, and that video recordings alone do not provide sufficient legal protection for youth. While he supports the legislation signed into law this month, Marty Feinman of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice said videos of interrogations don’t show earlier conversations or interactions between officers and youth, which could also influence a young person’s thinking.
“If you turn on the video and there’s apparent good behavior by the police, that might tend to provide an air of legitimacy and acceptability to the proceedings that isn’t really so,” Feinman said.
The developmental stage of youth means they are unable to “voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently” waive their right to remain silent, as required by law, he added, whether or not their interrogations are recorded.
As an example, Feinman points to the case of one of Legal Aid’s youngest clients, a 13-year-old boy who was questioned by law enforcement last December about the death of Barnard College student Tessa Majors, who police allege was stabbed by the boy’s friend during a robbery attempt. The interrogation was recorded on video, but no lawyer was present.
“We feel very strongly that that video is a glaring example of a not-knowing, not-intelligent, not-voluntary waiver and a glaring example of methods used by police to manipulate youth into saying what they want to hear,” Feinman said. However, the judge found that the eighth grader’s waiver of his rights met the legal standard, and this summer the boy pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery.
Feinman said he is hoping for passage of a bill now before the Legislature that would require that juveniles consult with an attorney, either virtually or in person, before waiving their Miranda rights. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a similar law in September.
There is now a growing body of legislation in New York to continue the reforms led by the passage of Raise the Age.
In August, Gov. Cuomo signed another bill sponsored by Montgomery, who is retiring at the end of this year, that allows judges in criminal court to waive court fees for defendants under age 21 if they can show the cost would create hardship or prevent their reintegration. Historically, all those convicted of a crime were assessed a mandatory surcharge intended to raise revenue for court operations: $95 for violations, $175 for misdemeanors and $300 for felony convictions.
People who don’t pay their fees are subject to a civil judgment, which appears on a credit report and can lead to a garnishing of wages, or to imprisonment. Those who are incarcerated have their scant wages — 17 cents to 39 cents per hour — garnished at a rate of 20%. Any money sent to their commissary by friends and family is garnished at 25%, and both withholding rates double if a person has been assigned more than one mandatory surcharge.
Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project at the Legal Aid Society, said the fees present an especially significant obstacle for young people who are unemployed or scraping by on minimum wage jobs; frequently, their parents or family members end up footing the bill, dragging low-income families deeper into poverty.
Having these fees by automatic, with little recourse for those unable to pay was unfair, “particularly if it’s a choice between medicine or food or paying these surcharges,” Ginsburg said. “These are the years where people get their starts, and it’s one more pressure if they’re not able to make these payments.”
In a report issued last year, the New York City Bar Association said such fees create a burden that is counter-productive for society and went as far as to argue that they should be eliminated entirely.
“Courts should not prioritize revenue-raising,” the bar association wrote, “over the successful re-integration of incarcerated persons back into society.”