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Videotaping Interrogations in Pennsylvania

January 11, 2023

The Quattrone Center has released “Videotaping Interrogations in Pennsylvania,” the first study to review Pennsylvania interrogation practices.

A team of researchers from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University School of Law today released a pathbreaking report, “Videotaping Interrogations in Pennsylvania,” the first to review Pennsylvania interrogation practices. The report describes the results of a state-wide project using public records requests to review the interrogation policies of more than 1,000 Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies, the largest sample ever surveyed in this type of study.

“This study of interrogation policies was an enormous undertaking. The work of filing and following up with over a thousand right to know requests was remarkable,” said Brandon Garrett, Faculty Director of the Wilson Center. “The work that went into coding these policies, conducted with the help of dedicated students, was still more demanding. The results, however, shed important light on the need to improve interrogation policies in Pennsylvania.”

The study findings suggest that a state-wide overhaul of interrogation policy and practice is needed in Pennsylvania. Across the state, many agencies lack any custodial interrogation policies or have done no more than set out the Miranda warnings required by the U.S. Constitution. Only about one-third of law enforcement agencies had policies regarding interrogations. Of those, 116 agencies required electronic recording of interrogations all or some of the time, while 101 encouraged recording or made it an option.

Thus, of over 1,000 agencies, only 217 had written policies on recording interrogations.

Marissa Bluestine, Assistant Director of the Quattrone Center Marissa Bluestine, Assistant Director of the Quattrone Center“Nationwide, recording police interrogations is a recognized best practice that creates a record of what happens when police question a suspect using coercive conduct that can produce damaging false confessions,” said Marissa Bluestine, Assistant Director of the Quattrone Center, whose team led the study. “Over a decade ago, a Joint Committee of the Pennsylvania Legislature recommended law enforcement agencies in the commonwealth fully record police interrogations. That has yet to happen. Across the country, law enforcement agencies have shifted toward recording all interrogations, and many states now require it. What was not well known was how many agencies in Pennsylvania have adopted this best practice, and our study shows there is a lot of work to be done in this area.”

Innocent people have falsely confessed in Pennsylvania cases, but the wrongful convictions did not come to light until years later due to the lack of a complete electronic record of their interrogations. In 2011, the PA State Senate Judiciary Committee – Joint State Government Commission to Study Wrongful Convictions, consisting of members appointed by the House and Senate, suggested in a report that statutes should require custodial interrogations to be electronically recorded with a coextensive wiretap exception for law enforcement.

Two bills regarding electronic recording of interrogations in Pennsylvania were introduced in the 2021-2022 session but failed to pass into law. First, PA House Bill 2005 would require that a law enforcement agency make a complete and contemporaneous electronic recording of a custodial interrogation. Second, PA Senate Bill 328 would require a complete and contemporaneous electronic recording of each custodial interrogation for certain offenses. Neither bill advanced during the current Legislative session and will need to be re-introduced as a new term begins.

“Across the country, law enforcement agencies have shifted to requiring recordings of interrogations, yet Pennsylvania agencies have largely remained as outliers,” adds Bluestine. “A consistent requirement that interrogations be electronically recorded is needed. Given the variation in existing policies and how few agencies have detailed policies to guide the conduct of custodial interrogations, we suggest a model interrogation policy is needed for Pennsylvania similar to what other states have provided.”

The research team also included Dr. Rachel Greenspan, formerly a fellow of the Quattrone Center and currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Mississippi; Dr. Adele Quigley-McBride, a post-doctoral fellow at the Wilson Center; and Sydney LaPine, a current Duke undergraduate student. Drs. Greenspan and Quigley-McBride led the research team in obtaining and coding the policies evaluated in this project.”

Read the full report and recommendations.