Bills aim to stop wrongful arrests, convictions

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Lawmakers in Vermont are working to implement policy reforms they say will help stop wrongful arrests and convictions within the state.

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) is co-sponsoring two bills in the 2013-2014 Legislative Session, S.184 and S.297, which seek to standardize statewide practices of dealing with alleged offenders.

If passed, the first would require all law enforcement agencies to adopt a model eyewitness identification policy on how to administer live or photo-lineups; the second would require the recording of interrogations in homicide and sexual assault cases.

"Taping interviews -- that's pretty much supported by most people in law enforcement, including the states' attorneys and the federal attorneys," said Sears. "They feel like anything they have that makes it easier and better to hear testimony, helps. The major hold-up on that one is the idea of how do you pay for it for the smaller departments."

While many of the larger departments already have equipment in place to record interviews, Sears said the bill is written in a way that would specifically provide ways of looking at how to help the underfunded law enforcement agencies in the state.

"Obviously it's to everyone's benefit to [record interviews] on all [crimes], but given the cost and given the difficulty sometimes, we thought we'd at least start with some of the more serious crimes," said Sears, of the decision to promote the recording of interrogations in violent crime cases only.

"What these reforms would really accomplish, especially from the eyewitness front, is ensuring that all law enforcement agencies are operating on the same page and carrying out procedures consistently," said Rebecca Brown, nationwide director of state policy reform for The Innocence Project.

"We're very hopeful that there will be uniformity across the state," said Brown, of New York, who works on the state level in collaboration with lawmakers around the country on behalf of the nonprofit, which seeks to exonerate those wrongfully convicted and sentenced for crimes they did not commit through DNA testing.

Law enforcement officials at the local level are already receiving training to eliminate human error from taking place as much as possible when dealing with both victims of crimes and potential suspects.

They learn communication tools necessary to interact with witnesses of crimes without asking leading questions, as well as how to properly handle cases of eyewitness identification and misidentification.

"The feedback we've gotten from some of the officers is very positive -- they see it as having value in terms of how well they do their job," said Rick Gauthier, executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, and who largely supports the proposed legislation.

"We have the same goals," Gauthier said of Brown, who helped draft the introductory version of the Bills, amid hopes that law enforcement officials will be given the training tools necessary to avoid making wrongful arrests or errors in procedure.

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"We're pushing training out into the field, the goal is to have all Vermont law enforcement trained," said Gauthier, who is the former chief of the Bennington Police Department. "We have incorporated that with fair and impartial policing -- they're meant to complement each other." Gauthier said the trainings focus on ways that all of the approximately 110 law enforcement agencies within Vermont can improve, including the ones which don't receive funding equal to their sister agencies.

"Humans are humans and they make errors on both ends of the spectrum," said Gauthier, of the legislation, which, through the implementation of uniform policies, could help police officers learn to better avoid sharing key information unconsciously through body language or tone of voice.

"The eyewitness identification techniques are designed to really eliminate that as much as possible," said Gauthier, noting that interviews with witnesses conducted by the arresting officers are discouraged.

In situations where lack of funding often results in a smaller force on staff, or leads to officers conducting interviews or organizing photo lineups without help from colleagues, officers are trained to remain neutral and not give away any signals to the witness in question.

"In many cases it's been shown that the arresting officer might show some bias," said Sears. "Very few Vermont police departments use a (live) lineup, but even a photo lineup should be done by someone other than the arresting officer, to do it as neutrally as possible."

Eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 72 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project, making it the leading cause of wrongful convictions. 311 people have received post-conviction DNA exonerations since the first one in 1989 changed the rules of law and science.

"The worst thing we can do is put someone who's not guilty behind bars," said Sears. "For the person who's been convicted and sentenced to incarceration that's a horrible thing for them to have to go through when they're not guilty, and also, that means that the person who is guilty is still out there."

The Vermont Department of Corrections currently operates eight correctional facilities within the state. Six of the facilities are combined jails and prisons, and two are work camps which hold 100 inmates each. Vermont also houses approximately 450 inmates in out-of-state prisons under a separate contract, according to a state report by the Department of Buildings and General Services, submitted as part of a recent "request for information" to the Comprehensive Healthcare Services for Inmates in the State of Vermont.

The bills are co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). "There has been incredible leadership, both in the law enforcement and in the Legislature on these issues," said Brown, noting that local compliance is necessary to ensure successful reforms take place - even, if needed, in the absence of legislation.

"One of the things we want to make crystal clear is that it's the average law enforcement person's nightmare to send the wrong person to jail," said Gauthier.

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