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State lawmakers to vote on self-incrimination protections for young people detained by police

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Delaware Public Media
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Delaware lawmakers are poised to vote on new protections against self-incrimination for young people detained by police.

State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown’s (D-New Castle) bill would prohibit police officers from using deceptive interrogation tactics to coerce young suspects into confessing — a proposal, she says, that is driven by robust studies of juvenile brain development that suggest young people are more vulnerable to manipulation.

Nathaniel Erb, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, says the bill offers a few key examples of what deception could look like.

“It directly addresses lying about evidence, [including] saying that someone falsely implicated someone when they didn’t, [or] saying that they found a juvenile’s fingerprints on the gun so they might as well confess," he said, "as well as saying that that if the juvenile admits to the crime, they’ll provide some type of leniency.”

The bill would not, however, prohibit police from using those tactics during witness interviews or other kinds of non-custodial interrogations.

Supporters span the spectrum from civil liberties advocates to some law enforcement spokespeople. Former Delaware Family Court Chief Justice Chandlee Johnson Kuhn told the Senate Judiciary committee a case in which she pulled aside a young detective who used deceptive tactics when questioning a teenage defendant.

“I told him how disturbed I was by the deceitful practice, because had the evidence not been as strong – and we all know that Family Court doesn’t have juries," she said, "it would have weighed in my decision and my trust of his testimony.”

Minor-Brown has noted that while no criminal conviction has been overturned in Delaware because of deceptive tactics used against young defendants, the bill is intended to avoid a wrongful conviction in the future.

The US Supreme Court began rolling back some protections against coerced self-incrimination last week, ruling that civilians can’t sue law enforcement for using evidence obtained without advising them of their Miranda rights - the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, underscored by a landmark 1966 US Supreme Court decision known as Miranda v. Arizona.

Minor-Brown’s bill passed in the House with bipartisan support two weeks ago. It goes before the Senate on Tuesday.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.