Qualified Immunity

Cops Receive Qualified Immunity for Coercing a 13-Year-Old Into Confessing to a Murder He Didn't Commit

The boy was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment.

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In May of 2013, Art Tobias was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment after confessing at age 13 to a shooting that he did not commit. Eight years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has ruled that Tobias can sue the officers who interrogated him for violating his Miranda rights when they ignored his request for an attorney. Yet the court gave the officers qualified immunity for allegedly violating Tobias's 14th Amendment due process rights when they coerced him into signing a confession by fabricating evidence and insisting he'd receive better treatment in court if he gave in.

The 9th Circuit conceded those interrogation tactics were indeed abusive. But the officers received qualified immunity because the exact factual circumstances surrounding Tobias's experience were not etched in a previous court precedent with razor-like precision. As such, Tobias will not be permitted to sue on that claim.

After the summer 2012 killing of Alex Castaneda, police zeroed in on Tobias, despite being told that he bore little resemblance to the man caught on video committing murder. The boy, who was then an eighth-grader, was pulled out of school for questioning. He was not read his Miranda rights until 20 minutes into the interview; shortly after, he asked for a lawyer.

"Could I have an attorney?" he asks. "Because that's not me," referring to the video of the shooting.

"But—okay. No, don't worry," responded Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Detective Julian Pere. "You'll have the opportunity."

He was not given the opportunity. Instead, the 13-year-old was given a lot of lies, including that "somebody gave [him] up" as the murderer—they didn't—and that if he refused to confess he'd look like a "cold-blooded killer."

Most notably, Detective Michael Arteaga said that his mother identified him as the shooter. (She didn't.) It's "fucked up" and "fucking pitiful," Arteaga continued, that Tobias's mom would be forced to testify against her own son.

"You're full of shit. And when this case is presented to a district attorney's office, they're going to see you're a cold-blooded killer," Arteaga claimed. "Okay, but I'm telling you man, we have a lot more evidence than you think, and right now when we take the case to court they're going to think you're a big time gang killer who didn't want to tell the truth, who is down for the hood. It's going to look like you're down—you're so down for the hood that you didn't want to speak. So they might throw the book at you."

Tobias obliged.

After his release on June 11, 2015, the family sought the right to sue. Overcoming qualified immunity doesn't render a claim vindicated—it only gives a plaintiff the opportunity to argue his or her case in front of a jury, who would then decide damages after hearing the facts of the matter.

To do so, a victim needs to prove the constitutional violation was "clearly established." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that Tobias didn't meet that standard for his 14th Amendment claim because the precise length of the interrogation wasn't specified somewhere in an analogous court decision.

"Threatening that a suspect will 'receive less favorable treatment' for 'exercis[ing] [his] rights' is so coercive that it always 'risks overcoming the will of the run-of-the-mill suspect,'" writes Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw. "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."

There's a catch. "Tobias's interrogation falls short of the behavior in [previous precedents] in one main respect: unlike those cases, Tobias's mistreatment lasted under two hours," she says. "We do not hold that 'hours and hours' of coercive questioning are required for an interrogation to 'shock[] the conscience.' 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."

Though it sounds fantastical, that's to be expected with qualified immunity, which continues to shield government officials from misconduct even when their victims have viable cases against them.

Fortunately, the 9th Circuit denied the officers' qualified immunity request on the Miranda claim, meaning Tobias can sue the officers for that violation.

"The LAPD detectives suggest that Tobias's question was not clearly established as unambiguous because we have found statements such as 'I think I would like to talk to a lawyer,' 'Maybe he ought to see an attorney,' and '[I] might want to talk to a lawyer,' ambiguous," notes Wardlaw. But Tobias's request, was not, in fact, ambiguous—something he'll be able to sue for. "He asked directly for an attorney, a request the officers ignored."

NEXT: SCOTUS Hears a Crack Sentencing Case That Shows How the Drug War Piles One Cruel Absurdity on Top of Another

Qualified Immunity Police Abuse Police Los Angeles Federal Courts Courts Criminal Justice

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41 responses to “Cops Receive Qualified Immunity for Coercing a 13-Year-Old Into Confessing to a Murder He Didn't Commit

  1. Sooooo Binion is positing that this wouldn’t have happened if the cops could be personally sued? I have pretty serious doubts. I don’t care for QI, but getting rid of it seems like such an empty symbolic victory. There’s not a lawyer out there who’s going to take a case against an individual cop for at best a couple hundred grand when they can get an almost guaranteed settlement in the millions for going after the department. Just opening them up to the liability doesn’t make the incentives go towards doing it.

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    2. There’s not a lawyer out there who’s going to take a case against an individual cop for at best a couple hundred grand when they can get an almost guaranteed settlement in the millions for going after the department.

      What makes you think it’s an either / Or proposition?

      Sooooo Binion is positing that this wouldn’t have happened if the cops could be personally sued? I have pretty serious doubts. I don’t care for QI, but getting rid of it seems like such an empty symbolic victory

      Yes, if you are personally financially liable for your actions you are definitely more likely to think twice before taking those actions.

      But even if it doesn’t deter it, it at least provides accountability for the actions.

      Isn’t that what the criminal justice system is supposed to do. It doesn’t prevent crime, it holds criminals accountable for their actions. Why do you think accountability is a symbolic victory ?

      Even if the threat of being sued personally doesn’t change their behavior in the moment, the financial hit will hold them somewhat accountable and will most likely effect their behavior next time.

      1. Any plaintiffs attorney worth a dime knows that it’s a bad look if you don’t also sue the individual officers involved. Also, it’s general procedure to cast as large a net as possible in naming the defendants, and allow the court to whittle down the list itself.

  2. Is Tobias a libertarian? If not (and I doubt it), then why are we fighting for him? The fact is, QI doesn’t harm libertarians. It actually protects us because it allows police to attract generally higher qualified applicants who we can trust to respect our rights. We should be focusing on ending the wars on drugs and weapons and decriminalization and otherwise reducing the budgets for law enforcement. This is the most systematic way to reduce police abuses. We should not be antagonizing the people we hired to protect us. That just makes no sense, unless you’re stuck in your adolescent rebellion stage.

    And we need not defend the rights of people who refuse to defend ours. (And no one is falling for your sudden interest in concern trolling for minorities and blm.)

    While I agree the police were abusive here, the solution isn’t to punish them but to improve policy such as how to handle young suspects. (And if they violated policy then they should be subjected to internal discipline.)

    1. “Internal discipline” my ass! If that “internal discipline” means cops serving the same time in jail that their LIES and rule-breaking subjects (or potentially subjects) their innocent victims to, then I’d be on board with it. What are the chances of THAT happening?

      1. They are just doing the job we hired them to do. You’re not a libertarian. You might as well be blm.

        Like I said, we need to focus on decriminalization and reducing funding.

        1. We can’t decriminalize murder! Period! If the cops want to LIE (as they did here) to falsely FRAME innocent people (for murder as opposed to pot-smoking for example), they are NOT doing the job that I as a taxpayer want them to do! Injustice is injustice, full stop!

          1. If you want people to protect you, then don’t vilify them. They will turn against you and you’ll have only yourself to blame.

            If the police policy is to accuse people of murder, even if false, then that’s the policy that you voted for and you have no right to sue them.

            Like I said, gradually decriminalize and reduce funding. It’s that simple.

            1. Innocent folks must be framed (of murder for example) in order to protect me. Got it. Thanks, but no thanks! Karma is a bitch!

              1. Yet that’s the police policy. If you don’t like it then vote against it. In fact the policy has mostly been rescinded. The process works despite these extreme and rare examples from years ago. You seem to be suffering from delayed adolescent rebellion.

                1. OK, got that one as well. Only adolescent rebels would object to being framed for murder! It’s for the pubic good, after all, to serve time in jail for crimes that you didn’t commit! Don’t be a crybaby, and cry about it, when it happens to YOU or yours!

                  1. So now you are threatening me with state power. That only confirms my position that we need to stay on good terms with the police including keeping QI. If you want to reduce state abuses then wind down government through decriminalization. Dont make them the enemy.

                    Obviously you’re a blm shill.

                    1. I turned off his threadshitting. How glorious.

            2. Are you for real?

    2. That’s a twisted and stupid argument. “allows police to attract … we can trust to respect our rights” Bullcrap. This boy’s rights were violated DESPITE police having qualified immunity. Your argument fails miserably.

        1. Ah, an ad hominem attack. Brilliant retort.

  3. Go download the opinion; it’s darkly hilarious when you get to the concurring opinion.

    Although 13-year-old Art Tobias had participated in the murder of Edwin Cruz on the evening of August 17, 2012—for which he pleaded guilty, as a juvenile, to involuntary manslaughter—he had no role at all in the murder of Alex Castaneda a few hours later in a different part of Los Angeles. But after several people tentatively identified Tobias from surveillance video as one of Castaneda’s assailants, detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) conducted a 90-minute interrogation of Tobias on August 20, 2012 with respect to the Castaneda murder.

    LOL that this wasn’t mentioned in Binion’s article, nor, AFAIK skimming the majority opinion, in it either. It’s only the very first paragraph of the concurring opinion.

    No, the cops shouldn’t have continued to interrogate Tobias after he invoked his right to counsel. And they should’ve known better. Plus, per the majority opinion, that’s sufficient to remove the interrogating officers’ QI. But you’ve got to be kidding me, if this is what passes for a terrible criminal justice travesty at Reason HQ.

    I know: we can let the MS-13 gangbanging piece of shit collect from the officers, and then use the proceeds to compensate his victim(s). Sound good?

    1. Did you have a point in there somewhere? Are you saying Tobias should be denied his rights because he may have but probably didn’t participate in another crime? (Read that case. It’s enlightening, too.)

      1. The link to that second murder

        https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/599fd9d0add7b05defc9a1ea

        It looks like the purpose of the qualified immunity was to prevent a lawyer from digging into that second murder, which the cops may have fudged as well.

    2. I know: we can let the MS-13 gangbanging piece of shit collect from the officers, and then use the proceeds to compensate his victim(s). Sound good?

      You forgot his book deal.

    3. WTF Binion? Huge chunk of important context left out of your article. Kid only murdered one guy not two.

      1. It’s sad, but the first thing I hear now, when reading a Reason article on criminal justice, is Paul Harvey’s voice intoning, “And now…the rest of the story.”

        They’ve done this crap too many times of late. At least Binion bothered to link the appellate opinion. Davis couldn’t even do that, some of the time. It makes me wonder just how much of the time Balko was bullshitting us. And his articles brought me here!

        Credibility’s a bit like virginity, in that: when it’s gone, it’s gone. (Though I think credibility is much more important. Who wants to have sex with a virgin?)

      2. Get used to it. This appears to be an ongoing theme for Reason articles. Making this Lance more like Vox or Slate all the time.

      3. “Kid only murdered one guy not two.”

        So? How is that ‘important context’? Because he was guilty of one murder that makes it okay to frame him for other murders? Because he was guilty of one murder it means his Miranda rights are forfeit in other cases?

        1. It means that we can take his lawyers’ claims of how traumatized Tobias was by the officers’ conduct, and throw them in the trash where they belong. But go on white knighting for a 13 year old murdering MS-13 member. It’s a great look to show any any normal people reading this, who might otherwise start taking you seriously.

          No, as I wrote upthread, the cops shouldn’t have continued questioning him after he invoked. That was wrong. But no, I don’t care that a 13 year old gang member caught the 25 year sentence he should’ve caught for his first (that we know of) murder.

          1. By your own words, the cops shouldn’t have violated his Miranda rights, but you don’t care. Nice set of fucked up ‘principles’ you’ve got there.

            “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

            ~H.L. Mencken.

    4. The boy was in school when he was initially arrested for the murder discussed in this article. So, here is a timeline.
      1) He is in school and police take him out and extract a blatantly false confession to murder ‘a’/
      2) While he is in jail or juvenile jail for that, another case is being investigated, the murder you reference, of Edwin Cruz.
      3) Aside from the reference you cite, there is another legal opinion more directly involving the Cruz murder https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/599fd9d0add7b05defc9a1ea
      4) Reading that, it looks like the cops probably fakesolved that murder as well. They had the boy in jail. He had confessed to a murder. They had a vague story about some people, including a boy that age, committing another murder. But look at all the twists and turns in what the police claim the various people said and did.

      It’s the kind of thing that should be investigated properly.

      It looks like cops fakesolved two murders.

      Nobody will investigate though unless there are big dollars, and the qualified immunity decision in this case removes all financial incentive for a lawyer to investigate the second murder.

      1. Tish tosh, the cops would never lie, and even if they do it’s only against deplorable riff-raff like gang members, so in that care I don’t care if the cops do lie.

        ~Gray_Jay

        1. It isn’t so much ‘the lying’ which is the problem.
          It’s the abduction and imprisonment of a random person.

  4. “A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief . Who can trust such creatures?” ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

    A.C.A.B.
    All
    Cops
    Are
    Bureaucrats

    Not only do we need to end QI, we need a new form of civil asset forfeiture to quickly and easily seize state agent’s assets, including their fat pensions in cases of their misconduct. Even without QI the deck is egregiously staked against the sole, private citizen, victim versus the state agent, his union, and the entire state.

  5. Never talk to cops. Especially if you’re completely innocent.

    1. What if she’s hot?

  6. “Tobias’s interrogation falls short of the behavior in [previous precedents] in one main respect: unlike those cases, Tobias’s mistreatment lasted under two hours,” she says.

    So the victim can’t sue because he didn’t resist the psychological torture long enough?? If they can break you fast enough then it isn’t actionable is what the courts are telling the cops??

    Fucking ridiculous

  7. Well, since the victim here has no hope of justice through the legal system, if he were to shoot the perps and I was on his jury, I’d vote to let him walk.

    -jcr

  8. “Tobias’s interrogation falls short of the behavior in [previous precedents] in one main respect: unlike those cases, Tobias’s mistreatment lasted under two hours,” she says.

    What an evil fucking lie. His mistreatment lasted for the entire time from his arrrest to his release.

    -jcr

    1. LOL.

      Read the opinion. Then emote, if you still want to.

  9. As long as there are court decisions that allow police to lie and trick suspects into confessions without violating their rights eliminating QI won’t mean a thing.

  10. What about the Prosecutor? Or the judge? Are there no ramifications for them?

  11. Reason.com should do an article on the murder of Hser Ner Moo in Salt Lake City.

    Police and FBI deliberately played with evidence in that case because they did not want to admit they had gotten a confession from somebody who was not guilty.

    He has been in jail/prison since 2008 and authorities are not going to fix that case unless there is publicity.

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