Updated: Jun 11, 2021
The state of Illinois has become the first state in the nation to make it unlawful for the police to deceive youthful suspects by lying to them. Why was that law even needed?
Witnesses and suspects are expected to tell the truth when spilling to the police—most people assume that’s a two-way street. Surprise! The police may legally lie to you during an interrogation. That’s the law.
Worse, cops lie all the time, and young people are the most vulnerable. Tactics include telling suspects that DNA places them at the scene of the crime or claiming eyewitnesses have identified them as a perpetrator of the crime. Law enforcement even lies about the consequences of confessing.
Many of you may recall the infamous “Central Park Five” case from 1989, in which five Black and Latino teens (now known as the Exonerated Five), were coerced into confessing to a rape they didn’t commit. The men served hard prison time before being exonerated in 2002. During individual interrogations, police told each teen that the others had implicated them in the rape.
Another high-profile case occurred in Chicago in which four teens were arrested and imprisoned for over 20 years for a 1995 double murder. Their lawyers had to fight the system for all those years, arguing that police coerced their confessions, before a judge finally set aside their convictions and set them free.
According to the Innocence Project, false confessions have played a role in some 30 percent of all wrongful convictions eventually overturned by DNA evidence. In Illinois, over the past three decades, there have been 100 wrongful convictions relying on false confessions. Thirty-one of these involve children under the age of 18. Recent studies from NYU Law Review suggest people under 18 are two to three times more likely to falsely confess than adults.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement for change, and last month, Illinois became the first state to ban these practices. Last month, the Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Bill 2122 with near-unanimous support.
“Chicago is the wrongful conviction capital of the nation, and a disproportionate number of wrongful convictions were elicited from Black youth by police who were allowed to lie to them during questioning,” said Sen. Robert Peters (D), one of the bill's sponsors. “They’re scared and are more likely to say whatever it is they think the officer wants to hear to get themselves out of that situation, regardless of the truth. Police officers too often exploit this situation in an effort to elicit false information and statements from minors in order to help them with a case.”
The bill bans police from lying to minors during an interrogation. If an officer knowingly provides "false information about evidence or leniency during interrogation," any statements from a suspect under 18 would be inadmissible as evidence in court. The bill does not include punishments for police officers who lie or use deceptive tactics during interrogations. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign it into law in the coming weeks.
Although more work needs to be done, I commend the Illinois General Assembly on this historic legislation that will safeguard against the wrongful convictions of our young adults. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of rebuilding confidence and trust in a system that has caused much harm for far too long – particularly to black youths.
As of this writing, a similar bill recently passed the Oregon House and is headed to the Senate. New York also has a bill pending. Will more states follow their sensible lead? You have the power to help end police deception. Call or write your state lawmakers and ask them to support all efforts to ban these coercive practices by law enforcement.
Mark M. Bello, a trial lawyer, is the author of “Betrayal in Black” and other ‘ripped from the headlines’ Zachary Blake Social Justice Legal Thrillers available on Amazon.com and other online booksellers. For more information, please visit www.markmbello.com.