Tag Archives: confession

Lying police undermine confession

This week’s case comes out of the Tenth Circuit: United States v. Young, No. 18-6221, on appeal from the Western District of Oklahoma. It is marked for publication, but I don’t have the cite yet.

Shane Young was driving early one morning in Woodward County, Oklahoma. The police signaled him to pull over, but he delayed stopping for a while. When he finally stopped, he got out of the car and fled on foot. The police caught him and retraced his steps. They found a small headphones case containing 4 grams of meth. They arrested him, but he invoked his rights to counsel and to remain silent and was released before too long.

Later that day, police returned to Mr. Young’s flight path and found something they had missed before: a black bag containing 93 grams of meth. The black bag changes things. Possession of 4 grams has no mandatory minimum prison term, but possession of 97 grams (the headphones case plus the black bag) carries a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B), (C). They rearrest him. He admits to the 4 grams but not the 93 grams. He asks for a lawyer, so they stop questioning him (but they do not let him go).

Four days later, Mr. Young is still in custody when he meets FBI special agent Kent Brown. Mr. Young tells Agent Brown about how he’s worried about the effect this arrest will have on his life. He has a new baby, etc. Agent Brown says he wants to help and that he’s “on your side.” Agent Brown showed Mr. Young the federal arrest warrant, but told him that he had spoken to the federal judge on the case. According to Agent Brown, the judge was willing to charge Mr. Young “anywhere from five to ten years” for the 4 grams. But Mr. Young could “physically buy down the amount of time you see in federal prison” by “own[ing] to the information.” According to Agent Brown: “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.” In other words, the more meth Mr. Young admitted to possessing, the less prison time he would get. Agent Brown specifically said: “that’s the way it works.”

Mr. Young was a little suspicious, but he didn’t have any experience in federal court. He wondered if he should talk to a lawyer and said he felt “like I’m buying the farm.” But he bought the farm anyway. He agreed with Agent Brown’s suggestion about how the black bag with 93 grams got there and was charged with possession with intent to distribute 97 grams of meth. By owning to the information, Mr. Young increased the amount of time he was likely to see from 0-20 years to 5-40 years.

A lawyer was appointed for Mr. Young after he was charged. The lawyer moved to suppress the confession as involuntary. Involuntary confessions are not admissible. The Government bears the burden of proving that the confession was not involuntary, that it was “freely self-determined.” In considering the question, courts should consider the totality of the circumstances, including characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation and whether there was any “coercive police activity,” such as misrepresentations and promises of leniency.[1]

The district court found that Agent Brown lied to Mr. Young and made promises of leniency. Nevertheless, the district court determined that the confession was voluntary, based mostly on the relative friendliness of the interrogation, Mr. Young’s experience in state criminal court, and the fact that he had been advised of his constitutional rights. Unable to avoid the confession, Mr. Young pled guilty and was sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment. That’s 15 years and 8 months. So by confessing to more meth, he “physically bought down his time” and increased it from the 5 to 10 years Agent Brown had promised to more than 15 years.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit was most troubled by Agent Brown’s misrepresentations about how the federal system works. “Although we do not require a law enforcement officer to inform a suspect of the penalties for all the charges he may face, if he misrepresents these penalties, then that deception affects our evaluation of the voluntariness of any resulting statements.” This is a version of a general rule in American law: you don’t have to say anything, but if you do say something, you can’t lie. Here, Agent Brown lied to Mr. Young when he said that confessing to higher quantities would result in a lower sentence. Agent Brown also lied when he said that he would tell the judge about Mr. Young’s cooperation, that the cooperation would “physically buy down the amount of time you see in federal prison,” and that “that’s the way it works.”

Because “that is not the way the federal system works.” Slip Op. at 9. In the federal system, higher amounts of possession tend to result in longer sentences. Cooperation can reduce sentencing ranges, but not enough to overcome the difference between 4 grams and 97 grams. Agent Brown’s lies undermined the voluntariness, and therefore the admissibility, of the confession. The confession should have been suppressed. The conviction must be vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings.

This case gives me hope. Police authority should come from their moral authority, their impeccable integrity, not from their guns. I am glad to see courts holding police to that standard.


Footnotes:

  1. I have omitted the case citations. If you are interested in seeing the cases the court cited, check out the slip opinion at 6–8.