Ninth Circuit Revives Lawsuit Alleging Coerced Confession
Addresses Contention Not Previously Considered in Its 2021 Opinion in the Case, or by the U.S. Supreme Court In Its 2022 Decision, That Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Unlawfully Exacted Inculpatory Statements From Suspect
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered reinstatement of a civil rights action by a man who claims that a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy pressured him into making a false confession to sexual penetration by a foreign object, with the majority of a three-judge panel holding that the District Court improperly excluded testimony by a coerced-confessions expert.
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia and Ninth Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw on Thursday signed a memorandum opinion reversing a judgment, following a jury trial, in favor of the County of Los Angeles and other defendants. Ninth Circuit Judge Eric D. Miller dissented.
The action was brought by Terence Tekoh, a certified nurse assistant who was accused by a patient of an improper touching when preparing her for an MRI. The incident allegedly occurred on March 19, 2014.
Tekoh was criminally tried and acquitted. He then sued under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that “[t]he sole corroboration for the accusation” against him “was the Miranda-less, coerced confession.”
Thursday’s decision marked the second time the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment against Tekoh in his civil action.
The Ninth Circuit held on Jan. 15, 2021, in an opinion by Wardlaw, that “where the un-Mirandized statement has been used against the defendant in the prosecution’s case in chief in a prior criminal proceeding, the defendant has been deprived of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and he may assert a claim against the state official who deprived him of that right under § 1983.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2022, reversed, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, saying of Wardlaw’s view:
“We now reject this extension of our Miranda case law.”
The Ninth Circuit on Aug. 3, 2022 directed the parties to file supplemental briefs as to the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision and related to “Appellant’s additional argument that was not addressed by the Supreme Court: whether the district court’s judgment should be reversed because the court did not allow Appellant to present a coerced confession expert at trial.”
In his supplemental brief, signed by civil rights attorney Paul L. Hoffman of the Hermosa Beach firm of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman, LLP, Tekoh pressed his claim that District Court Judge George Wu of the Central District of California erred in excluding expert trial testimony by Iris Blandón-Gitlin, a professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton. Tekoh wanted her testimony to show that Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega used coercive means, in violation of the Fifth Amendment, in securing “a false, somewhat incriminating statement dictated to him by Deputy Vega.”
“Dr. Blandón-Gitlin testified at Tekoh’s criminal trial. The acquittal required the jury to reject the confession extracted by Defendant Carlos Vega. Dr. Blandón-Gitlin would have similarly educated the jury on the science relating to why innocent people confess during police interrogations to serious crimes they did not commit.”
The former legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California added:
“The district court’s exclusion of Dr. Blandón-Gitlin’s expert opinions was not harmless error. The ruling prevented Tekoh from addressing a fundamental component of his coercive-interrogation, Fifth-Amendment claim—as the Supreme Court now defines it—and deprived him of corroborating evidence.”
Vega, then a sheriff’s deputy and now a sergeant, had told Tekoh that his interaction with the patient had been videotaped, which was a falsehood. A report by Blandón-Gitlin shows that she would have testified that such a “ploy is a dangerous tactic because, as some literature suggest, innocent people would falsely believe that they will be exonerated when the video is revealed” and “falsely confess to get out of the situation believing in the availability of exonerating evidence.”
The psychologist would also have testified as to “minimization tactics”—which she said are “moral justifications or face-saving excuses the interrogator creates to explain why the person may have committed…which downplay the seriousness of the acts.” Blandón-Gitlin noted that “Tekoh thought he would return to his job after he wrote the statement for Vega.”
She also set forth:
“Maximization tactics are scenarios that suggest a more serious situation and typically are given as an alternative to the minimizing scenario. The idea is to suggest a bad theme (e.g., you are a sexual predator) along with the good theme (e.g., people make mistakes, you are a human) with the goal that the suspect selects the good scenario and implicates himself.”
“Mr. Tekoh’s accounts point to the use of highly coercive and illegal tactics such as Deputy Vega stepping on Mr. Tekoh’s toes, yelling, using derogatory language, and explicit threats with deportation to Africa. Deportation not only of him but his family. These tactics go beyond the customary maximization scenarios in interrogations.”
Tekoh is a citizen of an African nation who is lawfully present in the United States.
Attorney Rickey Ivie of the downtown Los Angeles firm of Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell & Diggs said in the supplemental brief on behalf of the county and Vega:
“The expertise of Dr. Gitlin focuses on providing insight and understanding why and when a suspect may provide a false confession. This is not the issue here. Rather, here the issue is whether Deputy Vega, not the suspect, created the confession and falsely claimed it came from Appellant. This is a credibility dispute involving conduct the jury can evaluate based on common knowledge and experience. Appellees submit that the trial judge correctly excluded the Appellant’s expert testimony. Furthermore, if there was error, which there was not, it was harmless.”
There were two trials in Wu’s courtroom. The first trial ended in a defense verdict; Wu granted a new trial based on his conclusion that he had erred in dismissing the Fifth Amendment claim; at the second trial, evidence of a coerced confession was admitted but Blandón-Gitlin’s testimony was barred; the jury in the second trial also found against Tekoh.
Ivie pointed out that at the first trial, the jury decided that Vega had not fabricated evidence against Tekoh and at the second trial, it found that he had not coerced an involuntary statement from him. These were credibility calls, he contended, and the proposed testimony by Blandón-Gitlin would not have been of assistance to jurors in either instance.
Murguia and Wardlaw said in Thursday’s opinion:
“Dr. Blandón-Gitlin’s testimony was relevant to Tekoh’s case, as she would have opined on how the text of confessions can indicate classic symptoms of coercion, and would have explained to the jury how Deputy Vega’s tactics could elicit false confessions. She planned to testify that the apologies and excuses in Tekoh’s statement demonstrate that Deputy Vega utilized minimization tactics—classic coercion—to elicit incriminating admissions. She would also explain to the jury the significance of Deputy Vega’s use of a false evidence ploy when he told Tekoh there was video evidence. A jury could benefit from Dr. Blandón-Gitlin’s expert knowledge about the science of coercive interrogation tactics, which Deputy Vega employed here, and how they could elicit false confessions.”
The judges added:
“The district court incorrectly concluded that Dr. Blandón-Gitlin’s testimony would impermissibly vouch for or buttress Tekoh’s credibility. Her testimony, however, was not that Tekoh was credible, but ‘assum[ing] the veracity’ of Tekoh’s claims, she concluded that Deputy Vega used these coercive tactics. Expert testimony that corroborates a witness’s testimony is not a credibility assessment or improper buttressing, even if it implicitly lends support to that person’s testimony.”
They said that the testimony “would help the jury better understand coerced confessions, including why just asking questions can be coercive, issues that are beyond a layperson’s understanding and not necessarily obvious, even in these circumstances.”
Miller—who had joined in Wardlaw’s 2021 opinion in the case—on Thursday dissented, saying:
“The jury had to decide who was telling the truth about the circumstances of Tekoh’s interrogation by Deputy Vega: Tekoh or Vega. The proffered expert testimony of Dr. Blandón-Gitlin would not have been helpful to the jury in making that decision so the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding it.”
“In this case, no specialized understanding was necessary to assess the evidence of the allegedly coercive interrogation. As the district court explained, ‘this matter came down to a question of credibility’—if the jury believed Tekoh’s account of the interrogation, then it would have been obvious that ‘the confession was indeed coerced.’ Tekoh said that when he tried to leave the room. Vega rushed at him. stepped on his toes, and threatened, ‘I’m about to put your black ass where it belongs, about to hand you over to deportation services, and you and your entire family will be rounded up and sent back to the jungle.’ ”
“According to Tekoh, Vega then ordered him to sit down, handed him a pen and paper, and dictated a confession for him to write. When Tekoh hesitated, Vega allegedly put his hand on his gun. It does not take an expert to see how that would have been coercive.”
Reciting that “[c]redibility is a matter for the jury to decide,” Miller argued that the jury’s verdict, based on its rejection of Tekoh’s account, should stand.
The case is Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, 18-56414.
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