Friday, 1 Mar 2024

Colorado enacts law to regulate how police interrogate children

Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill Thursday that puts guardrails on how law enforcement use deceptive tactics when questioning kids, the culmination of a two-year legislative push and ending fears that the governor may veto the proposal.

The new law does not prohibit law enforcement from lying to kids during interrogations. But it does generally mean that any information — like confessions — gained that way can’t be used by prosecutors during subsequent trials. Supporters said the bill was a step toward building trust between the criminal justice system and the communities it impacts, while cutting down on the potential for false convictions of children.

The law also requires law enforcement to record juveniles interrogations. Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said Thursday it represented an opportunity “to reset and build community-driven pathways to our collective safety.”

“How do we teach our kids? Why do we teach kids ‘Thou shalt not lie except for these people,’ or to mind your elders, except for these people,” she said in a separate interview Tuesday. “With law enforcement, we were just like, this cannot be the relationship you have. We cannot be in a place where we have to tell our kids these things. Because we do, to keep them safe.”

Supporters of the bill have pointed to the 2000 case of Lorenzo Montoya, who at 14 was coerced into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. Police had told Montoya they had his fingerprints and hair samples. Montoya would spend his youth in prison, before he was exonerated in 2014.

A similar bill died at the end of last year’s legislative session, amid broader House Republican delay tactics and opposition from law enforcement groups. That sparked frustration from Democratic lawmakers, who accused their leaders of sacrificing the bill at the 11th hour.

When the bill was introduced last year, it initially would’ve prohibited police from lying to children in interrogations. That framing — police are lying to your children — helped drive significant pushback and contributed to the bill’s delays and ultimate demise, supporters said.

This year, Bacon and other supporters said, proponents sought to focus the debate on collaboration and trust, rather than deception and prohibitions. Colorado will now join a small group of other states who have regulated how police interrogate juveniles, although those states — like Illinois — have fully banned the use of deception against kids.

“This bill acknowledges the nuanced nature of (law enforcement’s) job and simply affords the children more civil rights protections,” said Bri Buentello, a former legislator and the government affairs director for Stand for Children Colorado, which supported the bill. “And frankly it builds the reliability of those confessions.”

A representative from the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council was not available to comment this week. The group, which represents the state’s prosecutors, was neutral on the bill. Messages sent to a representative for a coalition of law enforcement groups was not returned Thursday.

That readjusted framing, along with what Bacon described as a resolve by advocates to continue resurrecting the bill until it passed, made for an easier trip through the Capitol this year. The bill — a priority for the legislature’s Black and Latino caucuses — passed comfortably in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate and was awaiting Polis’ signature by late April. In addition to Bacon, the measure was co-sponsored by fellow Democrats Rep. Said Sharbini and Sen. Julie Gonzales.

Still, lawmakers, advocates and lobbyists grew concerned — and frustrated — that the governor may not sign the bill (instead allowing it to pass into law without his signature) or that he might veto it entirely. His office and some law enforcement officials had sought to amend the bill to allow police to lie during emergency circumstances, but supporters said that would effectively gut the bill.

On May 8 — the last day of the legislative session — more than 40 Democratic legislators sent Polis a letter emphasizing the bill’s intentions and encouraging him to sign it.

“As members of a co-equal branch of government, who voted in large majorities to pass HB23-1042, we expect to see it become law,” the lawmakers wrote. “We would appreciate it becoming law with your signature included.”

Still, as recently as this week, Bacon and other supporters said they didn’t know what would happen.

“That’s another thing — this is something that has been vetted through time,” Bacon said Tuesday. “And we’re still able to get it passed. I think it’s sad, but I hope the governor upholds the will of the people as we are the people’s branch.”

After the Denver Post asked Polis’ office about the status of the bill Wednesday, supporters were told the governor was set to sign it. A Polis spokesman told the Post on Thursday that the governor signed it but did not respond when asked if Polis had considered vetoing or not signing the bill.

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