by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
March 1, 2023
A bill before Nevada lawmakers would prohibit police and others in law enforcement from knowingly lying to juveniles during interviews, and from making promises that would appear to benefit the child.
The measure, Assembly Bill 193, is opposed by the state’s largest police departments and by prosecutors. It is sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecilia Gonzalez and five other Democrats.
The Assembly Judiciary committee heard Wednesday from a variety of experts who testified the human brain is not fully functional until the mid-20s, and that incomplete brain development deprives children of the ability to make decisions, especially those that affect their future.
“If you combine this with a youth’s incomplete knowledge about the legal system, we know that youth are more likely than adults to misunderstand the legal implications of confessing to a crime – a true confession or a false confession….” said Hayley Cleary, associate professor of criminal justice and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Additionally, Cleary testified that research indicates youth are more susceptible to suggestion, rendering them more likely than adults to submit a false confession under duress. Youth with intellectual disabilities are even more prone to change their answers.
False confessions are a frequent contributing factor to wrongful convictions at any age and present in 30% of all exonerations proven through DNA, according to Jensie Anderson of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.
Anderson noted in Nevada alone, Robert Hayes, Cathy Woods, Kristin Lobato and Fred Steese, all adults at the time, “were collectively wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for over 85 years in part due to false confessions.”
Brigid Duffy of the Clark County District Attorney’s office testified on behalf of the District Attorneys Association in opposition to the measure, but said she is “not coming from a place that I believe that we should be lying to children in order to obtain confessions.” Duffy said case law in Nevada “states clearly neither police officers nor juvenile authorities should be allowed to mislead a youth in order to obtain a confession. That case law actually goes on further to talk about how it is my burden as the state to prove the voluntariness of a child statement.”
Duffy noted “we have no examples of juvenile convictions on false confessions here in Nevada at this time,” and attributed that to long standing case law. “So I’m coming from a practical place in opposition to make sure that when we look at the language of this bill, that it gives some guidance to practitioners in the courtrooms and doesn’t forget that we are the ones that will have to determine what we are proving… and what the court is looking at to determine whether or not that statement is voluntary.”
A similar bill passed unanimously last year in both houses of the Utah Legislature, with the support of police and prosecutors.
The Assembly Judiciary committee also heard testimony on Assembly Bill 101, which would require prosecutors who intend to use information from a jailed informant to disclose the informant’s criminal history, provide a copy of any cooperation agreement, and disclose any benefit requested by the informant or offered by law enforcement in exchange for his or her cooperation.
The measure would also require the substance, time and place, if known, of any relevant statement made by the defendant to the informant, details relating to any statements recanted by the informant, and any case known to prosecutors in which the informant testified in exchange for a benefit.
The same measure, also sponsored by Gonzalez, passed the Assembly in 2021 but died in the Senate.
Jennifer Noble of the Nevada District Attorneys Association testified in support of the measure.
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