Since 2003, the number of states requiring law enforcement officers to electronically record some or all interviews conducted with suspects in their custody has grown from two to at least twenty-two.1 Until recently, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has resisted this trend; under its previous policy, the DOJ’s three chief investigative agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — rarely recorded custodial interviews.2 However, on May 22, 2014, the DOJ announced a substantial change in its policy, creating a presumption that FBI, DEA, ATF, and United States Marshals Service (USMS) agents will electronically record3 custodial interviews.4 This policy change is an important step in the right direction, reflecting a growing movement that has recognized the benefits of recording interviews; however, the new policy puts in place little express accountability for failure to comply with the presumption. Since experience with state and local recording policies suggests that programs without enforcement mechanisms are often undermined by ineffective and inconsistent application, the DOJ should ensure strong enforcement of the internal accountability measures in its policy, and Congress should be prepared to step in with statutory enforcement mechanisms if needed.
The federal government is relatively late to the game on promoting electronic recordings of custodial interviews. Reformers have been calling for more accurate record keeping during interrogations since the 1930s, and decades later state supreme courts began to heed their advice.5 In 1985, the Alaska Supreme Court became the first state high court to require recording when it held recording a suspect’s interrogation to be a requirement of state due process.6 The Minnesota Supreme Court also imposed a recording requirement in 1994,7 and a handful of state supreme courts have similarly instituted rules on recording interviews in recent years.8 In 2003, Illinois became the first state to pass a statute mandating recording when it required police to electronically record custodial interrogations in homicide investigations.9 At least fifteen states and the District of Columbia have followed Illinois and passed laws requiring recording under certain circumstances,10 and several police departments across the country have individually created their own policies promoting or requiring recording.11
Before the recent shift, the DOJ’s position was that custodial interviews generally should not be recorded. The major federal law enforcement agencies strongly resisted recording interrogations, citing fears that recording would interfere with rapport building, lay juries and judges would misinterpret acceptable interviewing techniques as improper, and the implementation would be logistically difficult.12 These concerns led agencies to erect barriers to electronic recording and to rely instead on note-taking and agent memory. For example, the FBI’s standard procedure was for an agent to take notes during the interview and later compile a summary known as a Form 302.13 The Agency had an exception to this practice that allowed recording if the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) “deem[ed] it advisable.”14 In all but the three largest FBI field offices, there is one SAC who runs the entire office.15 Therefore, although the FBI claimed that its policy allowed “flexibility” in deciding when to record interviews,16 internal DOJ analysis suggests that the policy actually inhibited agents’ ability to exercise discretion regarding whether or not to record their own interviews, and created a “heavy presumption” against recording.17
Recent developments, however, expose the shortcomings of the DOJ’s previous policy. After decades of experience on the state level with recording policies, many of the FBI’s concerns about recording interviews have been proven false. For example, numerous studies have shown that “recording does not cause suspects to refuse to talk, fall silent, or stop making admissions.”18 And even where the concerns may prove well-founded, exceptions to recording requirements can easily address the problem; for instance, an exception could be granted for technological difficulties.19 Moreover, some juries have met unrecorded interrogations with increasing skepticism in recent years, as evolving technology has also led to heightened expectations for “scientific” evidence.20 And exonerations based on DNA evidence have sparked a change in public perception of the likelihood of false confessions and wrongful convictions.21
The DOJ’s new policy, which went into effect on July 11, 2014, flips its previous presumption against recording to one in favor of it. Agents no longer need to obtain supervisory approval to record interviews: FBI, DEA, ATF, and USMS agents are now expected to electronically record statements of individuals suspected of any federal crime in their custody when in a “place of detention with suitable recording equipment.”22 The recording should begin when the suspect enters the interview room and should continue throughout the entirety of the interview with recording equipment in plain view or hidden.23 Any decision not to record an interview that falls under the presumption should be documented and made available to the U.S. Attorney and reviewed as part of periodic assessments of the policy.24 The DOJ also encourages agents to record in situations not covered by the presumption, such as interviews conducted with persons not in custody or not within a place of detention.25
However, the memo carves out four exceptions. First, the presumption does not apply if the interviewee agrees to give a statement on the condition that it is not recorded.26 Second, the agent and prosecutor may decide not to record an interview conducted for the purpose of gathering information related to public safety or national security.27 Third, an interview need not be recorded if it would not be “reasonably practicable,” for example, because of an “equipment malfunction, an unexpected need to move the interview, or a need for multiple interviews in a limited timeframe exceeding the available number of recording devices.”28 Fourth, the SAC and U.S. Attorney may overcome the presumption in favor of recording if they believe there is a “significant and articulable law enforcement purpose” to do so.29 Significantly, the DOJ makes clear that the policy does not “create any rights or benefits, substantive or procedural, enforceable . . . by any party against the United States.”30
The DOJ’s new presumption in favor of recording custodial interviews represents a significant improvement compared to the Department’s previous procedure. There are numerous reasons to record custodial interviews — benefiting both defendants and law enforcement — and under the new policy, federal agents will record far more interrogations than before. However, additional enforcement mechanisms may be needed to realize this new presumption’s many benefits. The DOJ should bolster the internal accountability measures in its policy to increase compliance and promote consistency across the department. Additionally, Congress should be prepared to pass a federal statute if the courts are needed to check the wide discretion that agents and prosecutors have under the current scheme.
The benefits of recording custodial interviews are numerous — including increased reliability and efficiency — and largely uncontested today. Most importantly, recording makes it easier for judges to identify false confessions by allowing them to bypass the interpretation of the agent taking notes and writing the report, providing judges with a more objective means of assessing the veracity of a defendant’s confession.31 In a study on exonerations in the United States between 1989 and 2003, researchers found that 15% of exonerated defendants had confessed to crimes they had not committed.32 Electronic recording cannot entirely remedy the problem, but recorded interviews have already led some judges to suppress confessions that, while questionable on tape, would likely have been admitted without a recording.33 Recording custodial interviews may also lead to greater efficiency and reduced costs.34 When recording, interviewers no longer have to worry about taking notes and can focus instead on conducting the interview.35 Moreover, recording statements results in fewer suppression motions and quicker resolutions of those suppression motions that are litigated.36
However, a policy that strongly encourages recording interrogations may not be enough; state and local recording policies without enforcement mechanisms have often been inconsistently applied. For example, in 2006, the Iowa Supreme Court strongly encouraged law enforcement officers to record custodial interviews.37 Shortly afterward, the Iowa Attorney General announced that he considered the decision to require recording, and the Iowa Department of Public Safety (DPS) adopted a general policy that required electronic recording of all custodial interviews.38 But a 2011 survey found that, while most Iowa agencies recorded at least occasionally, only about half followed the DPS policy and recorded in all situations.39 Additionally, due to budgetary constraints, policies without enforcement mechanisms can be stalled while police resources are focused on higher priorities. For example, in 2012, New York City implemented a policy to videotape interrogations for murder, sex crimes, and felony assaults.40 But a year later, only 28 out of more than 76 detective squads even had an interview room set up with recording equipment, and only two of those were recording homicide interrogations.41
Although the federal context is distinct,42 the DOJ should still guard against uneven application of its new policy by ensuring strong internal accountability mechanisms. Already, agents are required to document “[any] decision not to record any interview that would otherwise presumptively be recorded under” the new policy,43 but it is unclear exactly what is required in this documentation. Simple notification is a good first step, but interpreting the requirement to involve a detailed explanation of why the presumption was violated would increase compliance. Empirical research suggests that law enforcement officers who know they must explain their actions to a third party make fewer mistakes.44 Moreover, the more detailed the justification required, the less likely officers will act without good reason.45 The policy also indicates that supervisors should periodically review documentations of noncompliance.46 That is a good start, but expanding this requirement to include releasing noncompliance information to the public would increase transparency.47 This information could then be used to determine whether the DOJ’s self-policing is adequate.
If internal accountability measures prove insufficient to compel compliance with the recording presumption, external accountability measures may become necessary. The policy makes extremely clear that it does not confer on defendants any right to have one’s interview recorded.48 And because there is no constitutional right to have one’s interrogation electronically recorded, to compel recording would require a federal statute.49 Fortunately, several state statutes mandating the recording of custodial interviews have been passed in the last decade and can provide guidance. State policies generally have one of three enforcement methods: exclusion, presumed involuntariness, or jury instructions. In exclusion states, if an interview was not recorded and no statutory exceptions apply, the statement will not be admissible.50 In presumed involuntariness states, an unrecorded statement will be subject to the rebuttable presumption that it was involuntary, and therefore not admissible, unless the government overcomes the presumption by proving the statement was voluntarily given.51 In jury-instruction states, the prosecution may present evidence from custodial interviews that, in violation of the statute, have not been recorded, but the court will instruct the jury about the legal requirement to record statements.52 Any of these three options would provide federal agents with greater incentives to record their interviews than the current policy.
If federal law enforcement officers are not held to account for their decisions not to record, the DOJ’s step in the right direction might not go as far as it could or should go to promote reliability and efficiency in criminal proceedings. To give the policy its best chance of effective implementation without outside interference, the DOJ should ensure strong enforcement of its policy’s internal accountability and make information on noncompliance public. If internal measures prove inadequate, Congress should be prepared to enact formal, external accountability mechanisms to incentivize compliance and limit the harm of violations.