Recorded statements are a plus for police

A legal mandate to record suspect statements in murder cases is being expanded to include other violent crimes.

Back in 2003, the state Legislature passed and Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a bill requiring authorities to record (either by audio or video) statements police take from suspects in murder cases.

Illinois was the first state in the nation to pass this ground-breaking legislation. Since then, other states have followed.

The legislation was not designed to help the police; it was instead drafted to protect suspects by providing electronic oversight to ensure that authorities did not either physically or emotionally abuse people who talk to authorities while in custody.

With some minimal exceptions, the law decreed that non-recorded confessions in murder cases would not be admissible as evidence at trial.

What happened next comes under the category of the law of unintended consequences. Authorities were not happy with the change in the law, but they had no choice other than to implement it.

In the end, police have found that what the law mandated has resulted in far better evidence — incriminating statements right from the suspects to jurors' ears.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez describes recorded statements from defendants as "an awesome piece of evidence."

Gov. Pat Quinn this week signed legislation that expands the mandate to record suspect statements to eight other violent crimes, including armed robbery, aggravated battery with a gun and aggravated criminal sexual assault.

The law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, phases in the requirements over a three-year period, and it will be fully effective on Jan. 1, 2016.

It is inarguable that Illinois has had a severe problem over the years involving wrongful convictions that resulted from police misconduct in suspect interrogations.

Some of those cases were the result of honest, but overzealous, police officers taking liberties in interrogations.

Others, like the police torture cases involving Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, were the result of willful misconduct.

Whatever the cause, it was important that Illinois put rules in place to assure that authorities get the right man. That meant professionalizing the interrogation process by requiring more of investigators than what had been demanded in previous years.

The results have been win-win — good for protecting suspects' rights but even better for putting rules in place that enhance the truth-seeking process and boost the quality of evidence. Video or audio from a suspect's mouth is much more persuasive than hearing secondhand testimony from investigators about what a suspect said. Further, recordings protect police from suspects' claims that incriminating statements were induced by threat or force.

The legislation passed the Illinois Senate by a 55-3 vote, with local state Sen. Chapin Rose voting no, Sens. Mike Frerichs and Dale Righter voting yes and Sen. Jason Barickman not voting. The vote was much closer in the Illinois House, passing by a 66-50 margin. Local state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson voted yes while state Reps. Adam Brown and Chad Hays voted no.

It would be no great surprise if some law enforcement officers complain about this mandate. Fifty year ago, following the U.S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision, they complained about having to inform suspects of their constitutional rights. But after they complain, they adapt. They will do so again, and the criminal justice system will be stronger for it.

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