WASHINGTON — Agents from the FBI and some other federal law enforcement agencies will soonbegin recording interviews of suspects in custody under a new Justice Department directive that reverses longstanding policy.
The new policy, laid out in a memo issued this week by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, establishes a "presumption" that agents will record interviews with suspects who have been taken into custody but have not yet appeared in court. The policy, which is to take effect July 11, covers the FBI as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service.
That new standard replaces current practice, in which agents interview suspects without recording them, take handwritten notes and then produce a report summarizing the conversation.
It addresses concerns from civil rights groups and defense lawyers who say the absence of recordings leaves too many ambiguities as to what precisely was said and whether agents' accounts are fully reliable. The policy is also intended to ensure that law enforcement has a clear record of any confession or critical statement, and thatinterviews with suspects are properly done.
"Creating an electronic record will ensure that we have an objective account of key investigations and interactions with people who are held in federal custody," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video message announcing the change. "It will allow us to document that detained individuals are afforded their constitutionally-protected rights.
The policy change allows for some exceptions, including if the suspect objects to the recording, if the recordingis not practical or if the information provided in the interview could jeopardize national security. Though it represents a dramatic departure from existing policy, the new policy is also limited in scope since it applies only to interviews with suspects who already in jail or otherwise in custody.
"I think it is a tremendous step forward by the department in recognizing that having an accurate record of what is said in the custodial interrogation is helpful, both to the government and to the defense," said Barry Pollack, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington. He said one of the leading causes for false confessions is not having an accurate understanding of the context in which the statement was made.
Still, he noted, the change is narrow in scope since it applies only to interviews with suspects who have already been arrested or are in custody.