Saturday, September 05, 2009

Important Ohio Criminal Justice Bill

As this article by Sharon Coolidge explains, an important bill has passed the Ohio Senate, has the support of Governor Strickland, and is now pending before the House. The proposed law, S.B. 77, contains several important reforms for Ohio's criminal justice system. The article focuses on a provision that raises the ire of some of my colleagues, which mandates DNA samples to be taken from all people arrested for a felony. Currently, Ohio law permits DNA collection only upon conviction of a felony. Federal law already requires this for those arrested for federal offenses, but requires the DNA sample to be destroyed if a conviction is not obtained. I've not heard a good answer as to how the Ohio bill handles an acquittal. (Even if the specimen itself is destroyed, the record of it could remain in CODIS, the national DNA database, without a procedure in place to retract it.)

For me, though, there are three other, much more important provisions of the bill (mentioned in the article, but not given enough attention). These would require:

  • that all police interrogations be recorded from beginning to end;
  • that DNA evidence in violent crimes be preserved even after conviction and that more convicted persons have access to DNA testing; and
  • that when line-ups are performed, they are done in a "double-blind" manner, in which the police officer who conducts the lineup does not know who the suspect is.
The interrogation provision is the one that faces the strongest opposition by police and prosecutors' associations. But ultimately, it will prove beneficial to law enforcement. About a year ago on a trip to Chicago, I met a Chicago homicide detective. His department had recently begun taping all suspect interviews, and he explained that it was making his job easier, not harder. He no longer had to worry about a defense attorney insinuating that a confession was coerced or obtained in violation of a suspect's rights. Motions to suppress (a procedural device to prevent the use of an illegally obtained confession) were much less likely to succeed. The tapes proved what police have always contended, the detective said: in the vast majority of cases, the police do things correctly and legally. (I tended to agree with the detective on this.) For more on this topic, check out this report, Police Experiences with Recording Custodial Interrogations.

The identification procedures mandated by the bill are also quite important. Over the last several years, a significant body of scientific literature has arisen regarding the inherent unreliability of eyewitness testimony. The double-blind procedure will help to ensure that line-ups are done in a manner that ensures the greatest possible degree of accuracy.

Republican State Senator Bill Seitz (of Green Township) has been a prominent supporter (and sponsor) of the legislation. On many issues, I often find disagreement with Senator Seitz. But--particularly over the last year--he had an extremely thoughtful voice on criminal justice issues and has been an important leader for crucial reforms in that area.

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