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Ninth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity to Officers Who Coerced 13-Year-Old to Falsely Confess to Murder

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California’s denial of qualified immunity with respect to officers who coerced a 13-year-old boy to falsely confess to a murder.

A security camera captured the shooting death of alleged gang member Alex Castaneda. Through a series of misidentifications, 13-year-old Art Tobias was arrested and taken to the police station. Tobias was taken into an interview room with Detectives Julian Pere and Jeff Cortina. They were 20 minutes into the interview before a detective read Tobias his Miranda rights.

The detectives then showed Tobias the security video of the shooter. Tobias asked, “Who is that?” Pere responded, “That, my friend, would be you.” Tobias immediately and repeatedly denied that he was the person in the video. The detectives persisted in accusing Tobias of the murder, falsely telling him “somebody gave you up.”

Pere then said, “Now if your statement is that’s not you, don’t worry. We’re going to write it down just the way you said.” Tobias answered, “Could I have an attorney? Because that’s not me.” Pere then said, “But—okay. No, don’t worry. You’ll have the opportunity.”
However, the questioning persisted and Tobias continued to deny he was the shooter. After 35 minutes, Pere told Tobias: “[R]ight now, man, you’re looking at murder. Looks like you’re going to get booked today for murder.” Detectives then left the room, assuring Tobias that his mother would be in to talk to him.

Instead, Detective Michael Arteaga entered. In an aggressive tone, Arteaga cursed Tobias and told him that by failing to confess he looked like a cold-blooded killer. He told Tobias, “I just talked to your mom ... [s]he’s in there crying her eyes off.” He told Tobias his mother had identified him in the video and that it was “fucked up” and “fucking pitiful” that Tobias was going to “drag [his] mom into this” by forcing her to take the stand against him. Arteaga lied and told Tobias his mother had left the police station in tears (she was still at the police station waiting to see Tobias).

Tobias continued to deny involvement in the murder. Arteaga persisted in calling him a liar and telling him that a lack of confession made him look like a cold-blooded killer and that if he confessed “[t]hey’re going to try to get you some help,” but if he was “going to sit here and lie,” they would throw the book at him. Finally, after 40 minutes of badgering by Arteaga, Tobias (falsely) confessed.

Tobias was tried in juvenile court for the murder of Castaneda. He moved pretrial to suppress the confession, arguing, inter alia, the detectives violated Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), when they ignored his request for an attorney. The juvenile court denied the motion. A jury convicted Tobias of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The California Court of Appeal reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, concluding that the detectives failed to honor Tobias’s unambiguous request for an attorney. On remand, all parties—including the detectives—agreed that Tobias was not involved in the murder, and the charges were dismissed.

In February 2017, Tobias brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Arteaga, Pere, and Cortina. He alleged numerous constitutional violations, including: (1) a violation of his Fifth Amendment right to counsel; (2) a violation of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination; and (3) a substantive due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. The detectives moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity as to these three claims, and the detectives appealed.

The Ninth Circuit observed “officers are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal ... constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time.” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018). A right is clearly established when the contours of the right were already delineated with sufficient clarity to make a reasonable official in the defendant’s circumstances aware that what he was doing violated the right. Costanich v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., 627 F.3d 1101 (9th Cir. 2010). Courts must not define “clearly established” law at a high level of generality, since doing so avoids the crucial question whether the officer acted reasonably in the particular circumstances that he or she faced. Wesby. While there does not have to be a case directly on point, existing precedent must place the lawfulness of the conduct beyond debate. Id.

The Court ruled that the district court correctly denied qualified immunity on Tobias’s claim that the detectives violated his Fifth Amendment right to counsel when they continued to interrogate him after he requested an attorney and then used the resulting confession against him in his criminal case. Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). The Court stated that Tobias’s statement—“Could I have an attorney? Because that’s not me” was an unequivocal invocation of his right to counsel under clearly established law. Alvarez v. Gomez, 185 F.3d 995 (9th Cir. 1999).

As to Tobias’s claim that his privilege against self-incrimination was violated, the district court correctly denied qualified immunity as to that claim as well, according to the Court. A coercive interrogation exists when the totality of the circumstances shows that the officer’s tactics undermined the suspect’s ability to exercise his free will which renders his statement involuntary. Cunningham v. City of Wenatchee, 345 F.3d 802 (9th Cir. 2003). Any suggestion by a law enforcement officer “that a suspect’s exercise of the right to remain silent may result in harsher treatment by a court or prosecutor” is always unconstitutionally coercive. United States v. Harrison, 34 F.3d 886 (9th Cir. 1994). In fact, this is a bright-line rule laid down by the Harrison Court. Threatening Tobias that he would face harsher treatment unless he confessed was a clear violation of this right, the Court stated.

As to Tobias’s final substantive due process claim, the Court observed that the standard for prevailing on this claim requires a showing that an officer engaged in an abuse of power that shocks the conscience and violates the decencies of civilized conduct. Stoot v. City of Everett, 582 F.3d 910 (9th Cir. 2009). The standard does not require police to use physical violence as psychological coercion is sufficient. Id.

The Ninth Circuit ruled psychological coercion sufficient to shock the conscience in two earlier cases with facts similar to Tobias’. In Crowe v. Cnty. of San Diego, 608 F.3d 406 (9th Cir. 2010), officers obtained a false confession from 14-year-old Michael. Officers questioned Michael for over six hours even though he repeatedly denied killing his sister. Police lied to him about finding blood in his room and by telling him “he would get help rather than go to jail” if he confessed. And in Cooper v. Dupnik, 963 F.2d 1220 (9th Cir. 1992), police ignored invocations of an adult suspect’s right to counsel; isolated him at the police station; and subjected him to hours of interrogation where he was “hammered, forced, pressured, emotionally worn down, stressed, and infused with a sense of helplessness and fear.”

The Court reasoned that the facts of Tobias’ case shared much in common with Crowe and Cooper. However, because those two cases involved mistreatment in interrogations lasting for several hours while Tobias’ mistreatment lasted under two hours, the controlling precedent does not establish the contours of the right, and it was not beyond debate that the officers’ conduct violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Consequently, the detectives were entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.

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