Sunday, May 2, 2021
Ninth Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to LAPD Detectives Who Used Psychological Torture to Get a False Confession From a 13 Year-Old
The qualified immunity doctrine insulates governmental agents from liability for unconstitutional acts as long “as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The primary purpose of the doctrine “is to protect them ‘from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.’” So, should there be qualified immunity in a case with these facts?
Thirteen year old Art Tobias confessed to the murder of Alex Castaneda—a murder he did not commit—after an interrogation in which Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Detectives Michael Arteaga, Julian Pere, and Jeff Cortina ignored his request for an attorney, told him that he would look like a “cold-blooded killer” if he did not confess, and suggested that if he were to exercise his right to remain silent he would receive harsher treatment by the court. Tobias was convicted in juvenile court and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment. The California Court of Appeal reversed the conviction, concluding that Tobias's confession should have been suppressed by the juvenile court because the detectives failed to respect his unambiguous request for an attorney. All parties now agree that Tobias did not murder Alex Castaneda.
These were the facts in Tobias v. Arteaga, 2021 WL 1621323 (9th Cir 2021). According to the Ninth Circuit,
We have found psychologically coercive interrogation techniques “shock[ed] the conscience,” Stoot, 582 F.3d at 928, in two cases with facts similar to this one. In Crowe, police interrogated three 14- and 15-year-old boys, Michael, Aaron, and Joshua, regarding the murder of Michael's sister....The officers questioned Michael on four occasions, with at least one session lasting more than six hours....After Michael repeatedly denied any involvement in the murder, officers falsely told him that they had found blood in his room and had lifted his fingerprints off the blood stains. Id....The officers tried various means to get Michael to confess, including-in what proved to be the “most ‘effective’” tactic-saying that “he would get help rather than go to jail” if he confessed....Eventually, Michael falsely confessed....In concluding that the officers’ interrogation tactics “shock[ed] the conscience,” we emphasized that the suspects were minors, and that the officers “isolated and subjected [the boys] to hours and hours of interrogation during which they were cajoled, threatened, lied to, and relentlessly pressured by teams of police officers.”...This amounted to “[p]sychological torture.”...
In Cooper v. Dupnik, we found a cognizable substantive due process violation where officers deliberately ignored an adult suspect's repeated invocations of his right to counsel, isolated him at the police station, and subjected him to “hours” of verbal interrogation where he was “hammered, forced, pressured, emotionally worn down, stressed, and infused with a sense of helplessness and fear.”....The officers intentionally tried to get a confession for the “purpose of making it difficult, if not impossible,” for the defendant to “take the stand in his own defense” after he was charged, which we found to be a significant “aggravating circumstance.”
That said, the Ninth Circuit found that the detectives who interrogated Tobias were entitled to qualified immunity, ruling as follows:
This extended, overbearing interrogation of a minor, who was isolated from family and his requested attorney, comes close to the level of “psychological torture” that we have held is not tolerated by the Fourteenth Amendment....However, Tobias's interrogation falls short of the behavior in Cooper and Crowe in one main respect: unlike those cases, Tobias's mistreatment lasted under two hours. We do not hold that “hours and hours,” Crowe, 608 F.3d at 432, of coercive questioning are required for an interrogation to “shock[ ] the conscience,” Stoot, 582 F.3d at 928. But because the prior cases in which we found “psychological torture” did involve hours of questioning, and because the officers’ behavior towards Tobias was otherwise similar to-but not obviously worse than-the behavior in those cases, it was not clearly established that the offending tactics “shocked the conscience” when used over a shorter period of time. Because controlling precedent does not establish “beyond debate” that the officers’ conduct violated the Fourteenth Amendment, they are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.
This seems like a good case for the Supreme Court to grant cert and finally grapple with qualified immunity.