VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — UPDATE: The Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD) used fake DNA results and forged documents during interrogations, according to a state and internal investigation.
Attorney General Mark Herring's office said it happened five times between 2016 and 2020.
In a release, Herring's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) said some police officers forged state documents connecting a suspect's DNA to a crime to try and coerce their confession or cooperation.
VBPD said the tactic is legal, although they stopped it just days after state officials notified them of a forged Department of Forensic Science Certificate of Analysis that was used in a criminal investigation.
In at least one case, the fake information was presented to a court as evidence.
"This was an extremely troubling and potentially unconstitutional tactic that abused the name of the Commonwealth to try to coerce confessions," Herring said in a news release. "It also abused the good name and reputation of the Commonwealth’s hard-working forensic scientists and professionals who work hard to provide accurate, solid evidence in support of our law enforcement agencies."
Eden Heilman, ACLU of Virginia's legal director, said the practice could have changed the advice that defense lawyers gave their clients.
“We are concerned that this practice creates a culture of fear and intimidation that chills people in custody from asserting their constitutional right to decline interrogation," Heilman said. "It’s an important thing that the AG continues to look at this issue in other police departments across the state."
Heilman said the highest percentage of exonerated cases are tied to false confessions.
"This type of practice really erodes the trust the community has in the police and their ability to trust the police," she said. "It perpetuates the view of police as a coercive of force and that they’re harmful in our communities."
VBPD said the scope of the tactic was "very limited." After an internal investigation, the department identified 5 cases where documents were faked during criminal investigations, out of 9,600 cases in total.
In a statement, VBPD said the practice during interrogations has "consistently found to be constitutional by both the Virginia Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court."
However, the department said it took "immediate and proactive steps to address this very limited interrogation technique which they felt, though legal, was not in the spirit of what the community expects of their Police Department."
Heilman said it is legal for police investigators to use deception in interrogations, but she said she believes this practice likely goes too far.
“As a state, we would love to see the Commonwealth potentially consider rolling back deceptive practices across the board, but really highly problematic practices like this, absolutely they need to be reviewed by the AG office and checked."
The conciliation agreement between VBPD and Herring's office includes banning the practice, new training and reporting requirements.
The five individuals involved will also be told that forged documents were used in their criminal cases.
VBPD said it was notified of the first forged document on April 29, 2021, and Chief Paul Neudigate banned the practice on May 1, 2021 -- before the department learned of Herring's investigation.
The two sides signed the conciliation agreement on January 12, 2022.
"While I appreciate that Virginia Beach Police put an end to this practice and cooperated with our investigation, this is clearly a tactic that should never have been used," Herring said.
On Thursday night, Virginia Beach NAACP President Dr. Karen Hills Pruden released the following statement:
"The Virginia Beach NAACP Branch is appalled and livid at the Attorney General’s report that the Virginia Beach Police department forged documents that linked people’s DNA to a crime to get them to confess or cooperate with investigators. Although the report listed that the acts were not illegal, the actions certainly lack integrity and fall short of this branch’s expectations of how the City’s police department should conduct investigations.
The premeditated way the police officers acquired letterhead from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science to fraudulently and maliciously coerce individuals to admit; certainly under duress, guilt for a crime they may not have committed is immoral and SHOULD be illegal. Please name me any other occupation where this is acceptable except maybe in a war zone.
And there is a war going on within this city. The war of the city’s 450,000+ citizens to sustain their life and liberties despite an active police department who seems to be more emboldened to operate outside of the bounds of decency and straddle the lines of legality to avoid conducting their job in a reputable manner."