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  1. Opinion

Column: Why is Florida behind on taping suspect interrogations?

Published Jun. 14, 2019

Last week Nevada became the 26th state to pass a law requiring law enforcement to record suspect interrogations. Now, more than half the states in the country and all federal law enforcement agencies require the practice. But Florida does not.

After serving as an FBI special agent for more than two decades, I joined the board of the Innocence Project of Florida. Both experiences taught me the importance of reliable evidence in investigating crimes and preventing wrongful convictions. The FBI records all suspect interrogations because it provides the most accurate account of what was said and done during a critical part of an investigation.

Why hasn't Florida joined this growing national movement? It is not because our state had avoided wrongful convictions. Since 1989, eight innocent Floridians were wrongfully convicted based on false confessions, and taxpayers covered $38 million in civil awards and settlements in these cases.

Anthony Caravella was wrongfully imprisoned for 26 years for a rape and murder in Broward County that DNA later proved he did not commit. Mr. Caravella, an intellectually disabled teenager, falsely confessed after enduring a police interrogation that lasted five days. Only his confession was recorded, so the judge and jury did not see the days of coercive questioning that led up to it.

Last year, Clarens Desrouleaux was exonerated of burglary in Biscayne Park after spending four years in prison. Police officers claimed that Mr. Desrouleaux confessed during an unrecorded interrogation, which was not true. His conviction was overturned after the former Biscayne Park police chief and three officers were found guilty of falsifying arrests, including Mr. Desrouleaux's, to boost the department's crime-solving record.

The absence of a recording interrogations law in Florida cannot be blamed on local law enforcement. Many agencies have chosen to adopt the practice. Last session, SB 204 was introduced to require taping of suspect interviews in the most serious crimes. The Florida Sheriffs Association and the Miami-Dade County Attorney's Office testified in support of the bill, and there was no public opposition. However, the Legislature still failed to pass it.

There is no clear answer as to why Florida hasn't adopted this important reform. However, there is a clear risk of inaction. Without a law that lays out clear, statewide practices, justice depends on where a Floridian is arrested. It is up to the individual officer to decide which parts of the interview, if any, to record. This compromises the liberty of our citizens. It also makes prosecutions more difficult because judges and jurors are skeptical when there is no tape to prove what was said during an interrogation.

Now is the time for the Sunshine State to adopt consistent, statewide standards for recording interrogations. Let your state lawmakers know how important this commonsense measure is so they can take action when the legislature reconvenes.

Robert Cromwell was a special agent in the FBI for 22 years, and served as the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Jacksonville. He is the past board chair and a current board member of the Florida Innocence Project. Cromwell lives in Pinellas County.