“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Ninth Circuit Trump judge Daniel Collins cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 panel decision against Art Tobias, who had been coerced by police when he was just 13 years old into confessing to a murder he did not commit. Decided in February 2020, Tobias v. East granted qualified immunity to three police detectives from being sued for obtaining and using an involuntary confession in violation of the boy’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and for violating his due process rights by using interrogation techniques that “shock the conscience.” Their actions led to Tobias being sentenced for 25 years to life, and he was imprisoned for more than three years before his conviction was finally reversed.
As alleged by Tobias, video footage of the murder viewed by police showed that the perpetrator was a heavyset adult. Even though Tobias was five feet tall, 110 pounds and only 13 years old, the police officers treated him as the primary suspect. During questioning, they ignored his request for an attorney (which was why the conviction was overturned, and which the panel unanimously agreed they could be sued for). They also would not let him see his mother while she was at the station. In fact, they falsely told Tobias that they had shown his mother the video, and that she had identified him as the perpetrator. They also falsely told him that other people he knew had “ratted him out.” They shamed him for “dragging [his] family into this,” threatening him with a harsh sentence but promising him leniency if he would confess.
The majority concluded that even under Tobias’s version of events—and acknowledging that the detectives had unconstitutionally denied him the right to counsel—the interrogation was not unconstitutionally coercive, so Tobias’s confession was not involuntary. In addition, the majority found that the methods did not “shock the conscience” because the interrogation “lasted only 90 minutes” and did not involve physical threats or abuse, but were instead techniques that are all permissible.
Judge Kim Wardlaw dissented, explaining that courts hold police to a higher standard when they are interrogating minors. She cited circuit precedent holding police accountable when two teenagers were “relentlessly pressured” into a false confession, stating that “every reasonable officer” would have understood that the interrogation tactics used against Tobias were unconstitutional.