Under a new policy, federal agents and prosecutors must record interrogations that take place after a suspect’s arrest but before his or her first court appearance.
The policy applies to agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the U.S. Marshals Service. In announcing the “sweeping new policy,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said recording interrogations will strengthen public confidence in the nation’s law enforcement efforts.
The recordings will provide documentation that investigators are respecting detainees’ constitutional rights.
“And it will also provide federal law enforcement officials with a backstop, so that they have clear and indisputable records of important statements and confessions made by individuals who have been detained,” Holder said in a video message posted on the Department of Justice’s website.
According to the Justice Department, the policy applies to all suspects detained on federal charges. Video equipment must be used if it’s available, although audio recordings may be substituted if video equipment is unavailable. The interviews must be recorded in their entirety.
The recording of interrogations has long been a subject of discussion among criminal justice professionals and law enforcement officials. In a 2006 memo to field agents, the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel noted that the use of recording devices “might interfere with and undermine the successful rapport-building interviewing technique which the FBI practices.”
The general counsel’s office also pointed out that lay persons – jurors, for example – might object to interrogation techniques employed by prosecutors and agents.
The Justice Department’s new policy, which was unveiled in July 2014, is a “major step forward in law enforcement,” said Chicago attorney Thomas P. Sullivan, who has studied the use of recording devices in interrogations.
Sullivan told The New Yorker that his research shows that the presence of recording equipment doesn’t hinder investigators’ ability to build relationships with suspects. In fact, it discourages agents from overstepping the bounds.
“It will save hundreds of millions of dollars in wrongful convictions,” he told the magazine.
The federal government has lagged behind the states in mandating the recording of interviews. Alaska first required recording in 1985 and Minnesota began requiring it nine years later. Today, 20 states and the District of Columbia require the recording of interviews with suspects, according to The New Yorker.