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Proposals on jailhouse informants, lying to children during interrogations advance in Carson City


Proposals on jailhouse informants, lying to children during interrogations advance in Carson City

Jun 01, 2023 | 8:00 am ET
By Michael Lyle
Proposals on jailhouse informants, lying to children during interrogations advance in Carson City
Assemblywoman Cecelia González described the measures as "meaningful steps towards a criminal justice system that is fair, transparent, and upholds the principles of justice." (Photo: Alejanda Rubio/Nevada Current)

After Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo signed legislation to rein in the use of jailhouse informants, criminal justice groups are urging him to sign a bill preventing law enforcement from lying to children while they are being interviewed.

Both measures, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Cecelia González and supported by the Innocence Project, passed both houses and were designed to strengthen safeguards against wrongful convictions.  

“Together, we have taken meaningful steps towards a criminal justice system that is fair, transparent, and upholds the principles of justice,” González said in a statement Wednesday. “Let these bills stand as a testament to our collective determination to create a better future for all Nevadans.”

Assembly Bill 193 would prohibit law enforcement from knowingly lying to children while interviewing them. The bill prevents those conducting interrogation of youth from implying any testimony or confession could lead to leniency.

“Children in custody are already vulnerable and experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress,” González said. “Lying to them can exacerbate these feelings and may lead to fear, confusion and mistrust.”

The bill passed the Assembly in April on a party line vote of 26 to 14. González and Democratic Assemblywoman Clara Thomas were excused.

It passed in the Senate 15 to 5 last week with Republican state Sens. Ira Hansen and Lisa Krasner joining Democrats in the majority. Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond was excused. 

The legislation does carve out an exception if police “reasonably believe that the information sought was necessary to protect life or property from imminent threat.”

Nathaniel Erb, the state policy advocate for the Innocence Project who gave a presentation on the bill to the committee alongside González, said states, including Utah, Illinois and Indiana, have enacted similar laws. 

“AB193 would finally answer the call and provide what criteria the courts should weigh in determining the reliability of a confession if certain tactics are proven to have been used,” he said. “While law enforcement agency policies have already largely moved away from these tactics, these policies cannot guarantee uniformity of treatment or provide judicial scrutiny.”

The Nevada District Attorneys Association opposed the bill and proposed an amendment to the legislation to make exceptions in homicide or attempted homicide cases. The provision wasn’t adopted into the bill’s final language.  

Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris questioned the association during a hearing May 18 on “the rationale for allowing a trained cop, adult, to lie to a child” and challenged the need to deceive children at any time during the interrogation. 

Harris also noted that it’s “a criminal penalty” for people testifying to lie to lawmakers. 

“There are situations in which in order to protect, and in my mind specifically other kids, we have to get information quickly,” said Jennifer Noble, a lobbyist with the Washoe County District Attorney’s office. “There may be circumstances where there is an exigent, a concern, an emergency in which we’re trying to get information quickly and we need to protect other people.”

Harris also pointed to other countries that prohibit lying during police investigations and asked whether it was possible to keep people safe without banning the practice.

Noble responded that she hadn’t looked at how other countries’ laws around interrogations are implemented but maintained she is “not confident we could keep people safe if we’re prohibited in every circumstance from using deception no matter what’s going on.”  

If signed into law, the bill would go into effect July 1, 2024.

Assembly Bill 101 requires prosecutors using jailhouse informants to disclose the criminal history of the informant and give a list any benefit provided in exchange for testimony to the court 30 days before the trial. 

Prosecutors also have to disclose other cases in which the informant testified in exchange for a benefit, and let the court know if they recanted their testimony. 

The bill passed unanimously in both houses and was signed by Lombardo on Tuesday. 

AB 101 was supported by prison advocacy group Return Strong, the Innocence Project, the Clark and Washoe County public defenders offices as well as Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Battle Born Progress. 

In a joint letter in support, the groups wrote in March that “clear regulations for the use of jailhouse informants would help avoid wrongful convictions like these by providing prosecutors and the defense the tools they need to ensure their reliability.”

“This will also protect victims of crime from being dragged through endless court proceedings and taxpayers from footing the bill,” the groups wrote. 

The use of jailhouse informants, they said, has led to 185 wrongful convictions nationwide including DeMarlo Berry, who was wrongfully convicted and served 22 years in prison Nevada. 

Berry testified in front of the legislature in 2019 on a bill establishing compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned.  

In a statement Wednesday,  Erb said if both bills passed it would go “a long way to fixing a broken system that continues to fail both the victims and those wrongfully accused.”