Court of Appeals to Determine Police Deception Limits

, New York Law Journal


Adrian Thomas waits alone in the interrogation room of the Troy police station
In a still from the documentary "Scenes of a Crime," Adrian Thomas waits alone in the interrogation room of the Troy police station in 2008.

ALBANY - Just how far can police go before trickery becomes unconstitutional coercion?

Since 1867, the New York Court of Appeals has embraced the proposition that cops can mislead, deceive and lie to secure a confession.

But in an era of heightened concern over wrongful convictions, many of which involved a false confession, the constitutional limits of police deception are the focus of a pair of appeals that will be argued before the Court of Appeals Tuesday afternoon.

The two cases—People v. Thomas, 18, and People v. Aveni, 19—come from different parts of the state and arise from different legal conclusions by the respective appellate division departments. But they ask the same fundamental question: Is there a point at which police fabrications are so coercive as to render a confession involuntary and, if so, where does the court draw the line?

In Thomas, the Third Department unanimously upheld a confession Troy police obtained after interrogating a man for more than nine hours, and only after repeatedly lying to the suspect and threatening to arrest his wife for the presumed murder of their baby.

But seven months later the Second Department in Aveni seemingly held law enforcement to a higher standard, unanimously agreeing that police in New Rochelle went too far when they led the suspect to believe that the victim was alive.

Thomas centers on the 2008 death of four-month-old Matthew Thomas, one of seven children of the defendant, Adrian Thomas, and his wife.

Matthew, born two months premature, had been a sickly baby and was suffering from both pneumonia and sepsis, records show. He weighed only 15 pounds and had been experiencing fevers, vomiting and diarrhea for several days.

One Sunday morning, the baby was found unresponsive and brought to the hospital, where Matthew was close to death. A physician told Troy police, wrongly, that the infant had a fractured skull. Detectives zeroed in on Adrian Thomas.

Over the span of two days, police interrogated Thomas, and for the first time ever in Rensselaer County recorded every minute of the interrogation, providing a bird's eye view of expert detectives at work.

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