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The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct

Tenth Circuit: Confession Involuntary Where FBI Agent Falsely Claimed to Be in Contact With Judge, and Defendant Could Shorten Sentence With Each Truthful Answer

As a sheriff’s deputy attempted to pull Young over, he drove his vehicle onto a nearby residential property, stopped his car, and fled on foot. The deputy pursued, tased, and arrested him. The deputy then retraced Young’s path and found a small headphone case containing four grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine.

Young was charged and released. Later that same day, officers returned to the area where Young had stopped his vehicle and found a black bag containing 93 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine. That night, the deputy rearrested Young. He consented to an interview and admitted to the deputy that he had possessed the smaller amount of methamphetamine but denied the larger amount was his. He then cut off questioning and revoked his consent to speak.

Four days later, while he was still in jail, he was interrogated by FBI Special Agent Kent Brown and a state narcotics agent. The interrogation was videotaped. After Young waived his Miranda rights, Brown showed him a federal warrant. Young was visibly shocked. Brown told Young they would proceed from the “bad news” that he was facing federal charges to the “good news” that Brown was on Young’s side.

Brown said he had traveled to Oklahoma City and spoken with the judge on his case. He said that the judge was willing to charge “anywhere from five to ten years” on the smaller amount. Brown told Young he could “physically buy down the amount of time you see in federal prison” and that “every time you answer a question truthfully, it ticks time off that record, it ticks time off how much you’re actually going to see.” Brown told Young that he had a special relationship with the judge and that he would tell the judge what Young had said. Young wondered aloud whether he should have a lawyer present and then said, “I want to help myself out, man, but at the same time I feel like I’m buying the farm.” Brown suggested that Young could just say that when he ran from the car, he had thrown the smaller quantity of methamphetamine in one direction and the larger quantity in another direction. Young gave a statement in alignment with Brown’s suggestion.

After he was charged with possession with intent to distribute the 97 grams, he moved to suppress his confession as involuntary. Although the district court found that Brown had made false representations and promises of leniency that were “coercive in nature under the circumstances,” it also found Brown’s confession was not involuntary and denied the motion. Young pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 188 months in prison and five years of supervised release. He appealed.

The Tenth Circuit observed “convictions following the admission into evidence of confessions which are involuntary, i.e., the product of coercion, either physical or psychological, cannot stand.” Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534 (1961). Voluntariness is determined by the totality of the circumstances with no single factor being determinative. United States v. Lopez, 437 F.3d 1059 (10th Cir. 2006). The inquiry requires consideration of the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation. United States v. Toles, 297 F.3d 959 (10th Cir. 2002). Promises of leniency may render a confession involuntary. Clanton v. Cooper, 129 F.3d 1147 (10th Cir. 1997). Misrepresentations of the penalties a suspect is facing weighs in favor of concluding a confession is involuntary because courts are less likely to tolerate misrepresentations of the law. Id. If the defendant’s will has been overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired, the use of his confession offends due process. United States v. Perdue, 8 F.3d 1455 (10th Cir. 1993).

In the instant case, Brown falsely represented that he knew the federal judge who was handling Young’s case, and this misconduct was coercive, according to the Court. Worse, Brown told Young he could reduce the time he spent in prison by truthfully answering questions. The Court observed that is not how the federal system works, and that was an improper promise of leniency offered in exchange for cooperation. Additionally, Brown misrepresented the amount of time in prison Young was facing. While it was true that Young somewhat understood his rights and invoked them during his interview with the deputy, this single factor didn’t outweigh the coercive factors. Besides, Young had invoked his rights when he was only facing state charges and nothing from his conduct or background indicated he was familiar with the federal system.

Thus, the Court concluded that under the totality of the circumstances, “Young’s capacity for self-determination was critically impaired, rendering his confession involuntary.”

Related legal case

United States v. Young

 

 

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