Utah bill would prohibit police from using deception during interrogations with minors in custody

When Marty Tankleff woke up on the first day of his senior year of high school in New York in 1988, he found his mother dead and his father "clinging to life" after a brutal attack.

He says he was then taken into police custody and underwent a long, unrecorded interrogation.

During the interrogation, investigators told him two lies, Tankleff recalled during a House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Thursday.

Police told him his father had identified him as the person who had attacked them. Marty Tankleff was also told his hair was in his mother's hands when police arrived at the home.

"Both were lies. Both led to a false confession emanating after hours of interrogation," Tankleff said.

His website says the Long Island teen had "been brought up to trust the police and the word of his father."

When the detective "faked a phone call and lied to Marty that his father had come to and identified him as the killer, Marty was led to wonder if he could have blacked out. Only then did the detective read Marty his rights and draft a 'confession,' which was unsigned and immediately recanted by Marty. Marty's father died weeks later, without having regained consciousness," according to the website.

Tankleff was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for both his parents' deaths. Instead of experiencing his senior year of high school, he said, he was incarcerated.

Stories like Tankleff's are what one Utah bill seeks to avoid. HB171 would prohibit law enforcement officers from using deception during interrogations with a minor in police custody.

The bill received an OK from the committee Thursday and will move to the full House for a vote.

Coerced confessions

Tankleff's website notes his conviction was vacated in 2007 after he had worked for years to appeal for a reinvestigation into the case. In 2008, the New York Attorney General's Office announced it would not retry him as there was not enough evidence to prove his guilt.

If Tankleff's interrogation had been recorded, "everyone would have saw the lies and the physical and psychological torture that was put on me. This bill is a commonsense approach. No child should be lied to, no adult should be lied to," he said.

But children can be easily manipulated, Tankleff added.

When a child makes a false confession after being told lies during an interrogation, he said that keeps the true culprit out in the community.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, noted that the bill was previously proposed by Rep. Craig Hall, who asked Wilcox to sponsor it after he left the Legislature to become a judge in the 2nd District Court.

A few other states have made this policy change, he said, prohibiting deception in juvenile interrogations "recognizing their major differences in development." Brains don't fully develop until age 25 or 26, Wilcox noted.

The bill defines deception as "false information about evidence." During an interrogation, an investigator could not claim they have proof of a juvenile's crime if they don't have it.

"The cases that I've been exposed to in the interim as we've had these discussions are pretty sad," he said, adding that bills often get proposed "due to a worst-case scenario."

The "fallout" from this issue "undermines confidence in law enforcement itself when it's done incorrectly, so that's where we have to walk that fine line," according to Wilcox.

Youth 'susceptible'

During public comment, several representatives from the law enforcement and justice communities spoke in support of the bill.

Pamela Vickery, with Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, said young kids are "particularly susceptible" to making false confessions.

The harm to a young person by being arrested for a crime they didn't commit is "catastrophic," she said, and it harms the community as well.

She said she doesn't see law enforcement using the technique often, "but I think that we need to be careful to set guardrails in place, that when we're dealing with kids in custodial settings, they have risk factors."

Pamela Vickery, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, speaks in favor of HB171 next to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, in a meeting of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The bill would prohibit the use of deceptive interrogation techniques against minors.
Pamela Vickery, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, speaks in favor of HB171 next to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, in a meeting of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The bill would prohibit the use of deceptive interrogation techniques against minors. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When asked by other lawmakers why the bill would only apply to interrogations with youth who are in custody, Wilcox said he wanted to limit the scope of the bill instead of legislating all youth interrogations.

"What I would say is I think lying to anyone ... any type of situation where the custody or the criminal consequences of an individual's actions or statements are at risk, I think has to be taken into consideration," Tankleff said.

He added that children often don't understand what incarceration means — and that if they are being questioned by a school resource officer, they are able to leave.

Tankleff said the idea was to get this bill passed "and if we have to supplement it with additional information, we can do it at a later time."

Some advocates said situations like Tankleff's have happened in Utah.

Erin Preston, president of the Women's State Legislative Council, said a case occurred in the Davis School District when a 10th grader was involved in a minor altercation that turned into "an accusation of something much bigger."

During an interrogation with a detective, "there were a lot of accusations made against this student who, by the way, had a spotless record criminally, discipline, everything," she said.

Preston said the investigators were trying to get him to confess "to something much bigger than what had happened" by claiming the boy was the leader of a gang, but not disclosing where that information came from.

The charges were ultimately dropped, Preston said, but the boy's parents told her they would have had him confess to the charges to "get out of the system" despite his innocence had she not explained to them how the system works.

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"Clearly this has been properly and thoroughly vetted," said Rep. Matt Gywnn, R-Farr West. He said there are sometimes situations when officers need to lie for someone else's safety.

But officers understand "the importance of having a rapport with our youth," he said.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, emphasized that he believes those who lie to youth are "outliers," and may be doing so without knowledge of their police chief.

The intent of bills such as HB171 is to "protect everyone's rights," he said.

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