Vermont: Bills aim to stop wrongful arrests, convictions

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.

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