House Passes Criminal Justice Measures to Increase Transparency, Protect Minors

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House lawmakers passed a trio of bills Tuesday that would continue ongoing efforts to revamp Delaware’s criminal justice system by increasing transparency, publicizing information about law enforcement complaints and protecting minors from being publicly stigmatized.

DOVER (DE) via House Democrats: Two of the measures – House Bill 215 and House Bill 243 – are part of Delaware Legislative Black Caucus’ Justice for All Agenda, a multi-step plan unveiled in June 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and in response to a nationwide movement for racial justice and police reform.

Sponsored by Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, House Bill 215 would require law enforcement to electronically record custodial interrogations when they relate to a crime allegedly committed by an adult or a delinquent act allegedly committed by a child. The recording could include audio or video and audio, depending on the equipment available at the time of the interrogation.

“Interrogations are a critical component of the law enforcement process, but too often, there are questions about what actually was said or what happened in that room,” said Rep. Minor-Brown, D-New Castle South. “Much like body cameras, taping interrogations will provide an accurate record of what happened. It will increase transparency and accountability, but it will also provide protection for both the person being questioned and the officers conducting the interrogation. It will reduce false accusations and help restore trust in the process.”

Under HB 215, there would be limited exceptions to this rule, including exigent (pressing) circumstances, a person refusing to be recorded, or if the recording would reveal a confidential informant’s identity or jeopardize the safety of the officer, the individual interrogated, or another individual.

“Recording police interrogations will protect both defendants and law enforcement from false accusations by preserving an accurate record of what transpired,” said Sen. Marie Pinkney, the Senate prime sponsor of HB 215. “If we hope to restore trust in our justice system, we must be willing to eliminate secrecy, innuendo and ambiguity from the equation. House Bill 215 is a major step forward in that effort and I look forward to passing this legislation in the Senate.”

Prosecutors would be required to notify the defense of an intention to introduce an unrecorded statement in court and of the exception that permitted the lack of recording. Under the bill, the prosecution would be required to prove, through clear and convincing evidence, that an exception applies.

The House also passed Rep. Franklin Cooke’s House Bill 243, which would end the practice of disseminating mugshots of juveniles charged with minor crimes. The bill would prohibit law enforcement agencies from releasing or publishing any image depicting a juvenile, including displaying an image on any publicly maintained social media page or website. The bill includes an exception for situations where a juvenile is charged with a violent felony, and release or publication of the photograph is necessary to protect the public’s safety.

“As we know, information that is posted on the internet lives on forever and can follow a person around for years. In that way, a mistake someone made as a teenager can come back to haunt them in adulthood, hurting their job prospects, even if they have managed to put their life on the right track,” said Rep. Cooke, D-New Castle North. “Worse, posting a mugshot of a juvenile online when they are simply charged with or sought in connection with a crime associates them with that offense, even if the charges are dropped, or if they found not responsible.

“If we really believe that these juvenile mugshots can have serious ramifications that follow people around for the rest of their lives, we must look backward before we can truly move forward. I’m hopeful this bill will win quick approval from the General Assembly and end this hurtful practice.”

Last year, Governor John Carney issued an executive order prohibiting executive branch law enforcement agencies, including the Delaware State Police and Capitol Police, from releasing juvenile mugshots, but there is no universal policy among Delaware’s 40-plus police agencies regarding publication of mugshots of minors.

“Releasing the mugshots of children and teens before they’ve ever had their case heard in court can have devastating consequences for young people well into adulthood,” said Sen. Darius Brown, the Senate prime sponsor of HB 243. “Photos of children taken hours after making their worst mistake can live online forever, causing them to struggle finding jobs, secure housing and an education even if they have been acquitted. Children deserve a chance to make amends before being branded online as a criminal for the rest of their lives.”

Additionally, the House passed legislation Tuesday from House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf that would allow members of the public to view complaints against law enforcement officers. House Joint Resolution 4 would require the Criminal Justice Council to publicly publish an integrity report detailing the information furnished by each police agency concerning complaints made against any of its police officers for the previous three years, as well as complaints made in the year against any of its police officers and the disposition of each complaint.

The resolution also would require the CJC to publish and update a searchable list of all police officers who have been decertified in Delaware in the previous 10 years.

“Publishing reports of complaints by agency and a list of decertified officers will make this information more easily accessible to the public and provide more data for residents to know more about the police agencies that serve their communities,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, a retired Delaware State Police captain. “There is no single silver bullet to addressing police reform; we must take a series of steps forward toward improving transparency and accountability. This measure is another piece of a larger puzzle of reforming our criminal justice system to improve policing and ensure the system works the way it is intended.”

Under HJR 4, the Criminal Justice Council would need to publish the lists by November and keep the data current, with the list of complaints updated at least annually, and the list of decertified officers updated whenever an officer is decertified.

“We’ve been working hard this year to raise the level of transparency and accountability for police in Delaware through legislation that sets a higher standard for use of force and makes police misconduct records publicly accessible,” Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola said. “They say no one is more impacted by bad police work than good police officers and this resolution – from a former state trooper – will further help restore trust in law enforcement by drawing a clear line between the dedicated men and women who faithfully protect our neighbors and those who have violated the public’s trust.”

All three bills head to the Senate for consideration.

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