Police in Virginia Beach forged forensic science reports used in criminal interrogations at least five times, according to Attorney General Mark Herring, who announced Wednesday that the department had agreed to end the practice following an investigation by his Office of Civil Rights.
In a news release, Herring’s office said the forgeries were discovered in April after a local prosecutor attempted to obtain a certified copy of a forged DNA analysis from the state’s Department of Forensic Science. The office said that in at least one instance, a forgery was presented in court as evidence during a bond hearing.
“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 statement. “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 his office is alerting defendants in the five cases in which the tactic was used and that the police department had agreed to “immediately discontinue the use of any inauthentic certificates of analysis, DFS letterhead, or templates used to make inauthentic documents, and prohibiting personnel from making or using any inauthentic or altered certificates, letterhead, or formats of any department outside the agency.”
Observers said it’s legal and not uncommon for police to lie to suspects during interrogations, but that they’d not heard of cases in which officers forged official documents in an effort to trick a suspect.
“One thing to bear in mind that most people don’t know is that police are absolutely permitted to lie to suspects,” said Steve Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond. “The question is, whether actually manufacturing false evidence to present crosses a line.”
In a statement, the Virginia Beach Police Department referred to the fake DNA reports as “inauthentic replica documents” and said that the practice “has consistently been found to be constitutional by both the Virginia Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.”
The statement also stressed that Police Chief Paul Neudigate had ordered an end to the practice before the attorney general’s investigation after it was brought to his attention by other state officials, including Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety.
“The VBPD 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,” the statement said.
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