ALBANY - Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday endorsed a longstanding proposal to require videotaping of interrogations of criminal suspects, marking the first time that the oft-shelved initiative backed strongly by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) has garnered executive support.
In his annual State of the State address, Cuomo also called for a host of tougher gun-control laws in the wake of several gun-fueled tragedies, including the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre and the slayings of two volunteer firefighters near Rochester on Christmas Eve.
And the governor said he would push in 2013 to decriminalize the “open view” possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less, arguing that young blacks and Hispanics are charged disproportionately under the provision, often with life-long consequences.
Cuomo called for the mandatory recording of interrogations of those suspected of the most serious offenses, such as homicide, kidnapping and some sex offenses. The recording has been supported in the past by the New York State Bar Association, the New York City Bar and by Lippman and others who say it would be an important part of what Cuomo called “innocence protections” to ensure no one is wrongfully convicted of crimes.
Another step urged by the governor was to require the admission of eyewitness photo identification only where blind or double-blind identification procedures were used. Advocates say the process would reduce the chances that police tip off the identity of suspects to eyewitnesses because the officers themselves do not know who the suspects are in the lineups.
It was also the first time Cuomo had taken a stand in favor of the lineup identification safeguards.
“This will give us more certainty that the convictions we actually obtain are more accurate and justified,” Cuomo said during his address in the convention center of the Empire State Plaza government complex near the state Capitol.
The governor said it is in the best interests of all those in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, to make sure that the guilty are convicted and the innocent are not. “This is not a numbers game for a prosecutor,” he said.
It was unclear yesterday if the videotaping measure will be introduced as a standalone piece of legislation or a package of bills. In the past, the proposal has been bundled with unrelated or marginally related issues and never gained traction.
Lippman said following the address yesterday that the initiatives to introduce the videotaping and lineup procedures were both at the top of the priority list of a commission he appointed, the New York State Justice Task Force, to reduce the instances of wrongful convictions.
“I couldn’t laud the governor more for his leadership in this area because it is so important to the state and the Judiciary…. [T]he one thing that undermines the justice system more than anything else is when an innocent person is convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit,” said Lippman, who was in the front row with the other four members of the Court of Appeals. “Nothing could be more contrary to the concept of equal justice and the rule of law.”
Cuomo said 12 states—Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia—have enacted legislation requiring the recording of custodial interrogations. Additionally, he said high courts in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey have required authorities to record confessions.
Lippman said another proposal by the task force, to expand DNA testing to apply to virtually all crimes, was adopted by the state in 2012.
The governor’s support of videotaping comes on the heels of a September announcement by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that the NYPD will expand the videotaping of interrogations to all 76 precincts.
It has been opposed by some police officials who question whether smaller agencies can afford the procedure.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who also attended yesterday’s speech, said he backs videotaping initiatives.
“I think that the police commissioner has seen that there is a sensible movement toward custodial interrogation of videotaping statements, particularly for defined types of violent crime, which minimizes the fiscal impact,” Vance said. “I think that trend is the right trend.”
Vance is president of the state District Attorneys’ Association but said he was speaking for himself about the proposal.
State Bar President Seymour James said the governor’s support for videotaped interrogations and reform of photo identification procedures significantly advances those issues.
“We are quite pleased that he included proposals to address some of the problems that have resulted in wrongful convictions,” James said in an interview. “We have long supported recording of custodial interrogations and double blind identification procedures, so we look forward to the opportunity to work with the governor’s office to achieve what I think are our shared priorities.”
City Bar President Carey Dunne said his group has also long advocated for moves that would reduce wrongful convictions, including the videotaping of interrogations and a double-blind identification process.
State Senator John Bonacic, a Mount Hope Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said he supports the videotaping proposal because it would better preserve the rights of criminal defendants and provide verification for police agencies about properly gleaning information from suspects.
Proposal on Drugs
The governor said his marijuana possession proposal was a matter of fairness.
While possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor when it is “open view,” possession of the same amount of marijuana is a violation when found in a person’s home.
Cuomo said the “open view” arrests for marijuana accounts for 15 percent of all arrests in New York City, the largest category of arrests in any one area. He said 82 percent of those arrested for the misdemeanor are black or Hispanic and that 69 percent of them are under age 30.
According to the governor, the arrests often make it harder for offenders to get into school, find jobs or “turn their lives around” because the misdemeanors stay on their records for a lifetime.
“Stop stigmatizing these young people,” Cuomo urged yesterday.
Vance said he supported that initiative because as a district attorney he wants to use as many resources as possible to pursue violent criminals, not low-level drug offenders.
Cuomo said he was continuing to negotiate a package of gun-control measures with the Legislature but that it is time to “stop the madness” of rapid-fire, assault-style weapons being turned on civilians by disturbed individuals.
The proposals would extend controls on sales to private transactions, to enhance penalties for those who buy illegal guns or use them on school properties or in drug-related gun activities, and to revisit gun licenses to determine whether their holders are still eligible to have the weapons.