Police Abuse

California Man Gets $900,000 Settlement for 'Psychological Torture' During 17-Hour Police Interrogation

Detectives in Fontana, California, told Thomas Perez Jr. that his father was dead and that he killed him. Neither was true.


The California town of Fontana will pay $900,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit after police falsely accused a man of murdering his father, interrogated him for 17 hours, threatened to have his dog euthanized, and withheld medication from him, eventually leading the distraught man to give a false confession and try to commit suicide in the police station.

His father was alive the whole time.

The case, first reported by the San Bernardino Sun, is a particularly deranged example of how abusive police interrogation techniques can produce false confessions. Reason has previously reported how several states around the country have tightened rules for police interrogations of minors, banning deception and requiring lawyers to be present.

But even adults can be pushed into confessing a crime they didn't commit, as the case of Thomas Perez Jr. shows.

In 2018, Perez reported to the Fontana police that his 71-year-old father, Thomas Perez Sr., had disappeared the previous day while taking the family dog out for a walk. The dog had returned without the elder Perez.

Perez Jr. agreed to go to the police station to talk to detectives. While there, the police obtained a search warrant for the family's house, and based on small blood stains around the house and an alert from a corpse-sniffing dog, their suspicions turned to Perez Jr.

Video of Perez Jr.'s interrogation showed that Fontana police told him, falsely, that they had already found his father's corpse and that there was evidence pointing to him as the murderer. According to his lawsuit, he was kept in police custody for 17 hours, during which detectives berated him, refused to let him sleep, and wouldn't let him retrieve his medications for depression, stress, asthma, and high blood pressure. 

"At one point while they are telling him to confess, he starts pulling at his own hair, hitting himself, making anguished noises, tears off his own shirt, and nearly falls to the floor," U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California Dolly Gee wrote in an order in Perez Jr.'s case, summarizing the video. "During this episode, the officers laugh at him and tell him that he is stressing out his dog. Later, they tell him that they are going to give away his dog."

Detectives in fact brought Perez Jr.'s dog into the interrogation room so he could say goodbye to it. Perez then confessed to stabbing his father with a pair of scissors.

After confessing, while he was left alone in the interrogation room, Perez Jr. tried to hang himself with his shoelaces. He was taken from the police station and temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

While the younger Perez was in the hospital, police located the elder Perez alive and well at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was flying to Oakland to see his daughter.

Perez Jr. filed a lawsuit against Fontana in 2019, alleging that the Fontana police violated his due process rights, as well as his constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force.

The Supreme Court ruled it was lawful for the police to lie during interrogations in 1969, in Frazier v. Cupp, a case where a man challenged his murder conviction on the grounds that police had claimed that the man's cousin had already confessed and implicated him, which was not true.

At the time, a mentally sound adult falsely confessing to a crime was considered a myth. The advent of DNA testing has shown that it is an all-too-real phenomenon. According to the Innocence Project, nearly 30 percent of DNA exonerations involved false confessions. Only a third of those false confessors were 18 years old or younger at the time of their arrest. 

However, police officers' freedom to lie during interrogations does not extend to physical or psychological torture. Gee wrote there was no legitimate government interest that would justify detectives' treatment of Perez Jr.

"A reasonable juror could conclude that [the detectives] inflicted unconstitutional psychological torture on Perez," Gee wrote in her summary judgment order, finding that their "tactics indisputably led to Perez's subjective confusion and disorientation, to the point he falsely confessed to killing his father, and tried to take his own life."

According to the San Bernardino Sun, three of the Fontana officers involved in Perez Jr.'s case remain employed with the department, while one has retired to enjoy his public pension.