“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.
Trump Ninth Circuit judge Daniel Bress cast the deciding vote to uphold police punching, kneeing, and handcuffing a suspect and then obtaining an incriminating statement from him without giving him required Miranda warnings. The April 2021 ruling was in United States v Torres.
Raul Adrian Torres was leaving a house with a backpack when police officers shouted at him to stop. He took off running. Unbeknownst to him, he had been mistakenly identified as someone with an outstanding warrant for being in possession of a handgun after having been convicted of a felony. Police caught up to Torres, he continued to resist, and they kneed, punched, restrained, and handcuffed him and brought him into custody, Without giving him the required Miranda warnings, they began to question him, with one officer asking Torres why he ran. Torres stated that he ran because “I have a gun.” Police then seized the backpack, found a gun and ammunition inside, determined that although Torres was not who they thought he was he had been convicted of a felony, and arrested him for knowing possession of a gun having been convicted of a felony.
A lower court denied a motion to suppress Torres’ statement because of the failure to first give him Miranda warnings as required by law, as well as to suppress other evidence, and Torres appealed, conceding that he would plead guilty if his appeal was denied. Trump judge Bress provided the deciding vote to affirm the lower court and reject Torres’ contention. Although conceding that it was wrong to fail to give Torres a Miranda warning to warn him of his right against self-incrimination and to make clear that he did not have to talk to the police, the majority concluded that the error was “harmless.” They maintained that the statement was “duplicative” of other “substantial circumstantial evidence that Torres knew his possession of a gun was illegal,” and that there was “no reasonable possibility that the erroneously admitted statement contributed to Torres’ decision” to plead guilty if his motion to suppress was denied on appeal.
Judge Margaret McKeown strongly dissented. She explained that the lower court had clearly erred and harmed Torres’ rights by failing to suppress the “inculpatory statement that was instrumental in establishing” his required knowledge that he was not allowed to possess a gun, that Torres was improperly “subjected to custodial interrogation without the required Miranda advisements,” and that the error “was not harmless.”
Specifically, McKeown went on, because the statement “went directly to an element” of the crime by demonstrating that he “knew he was not allowed to have a gun,” relevant case law established that there was “more than a ‘reasonable possibility’” that its erroneous admission into evidence contributed to the conditional guilty plea. As to the majority’s claim that the statement was “duplicative” of “other evidence, McKeown asked “what other evidence?” The only “other evidence” relied on by the government, she continued, was Torres’ knowledge that he was on parole, but as McKeown pointed out, that “does not establish knowledge of felon status” since probation is used for both felonies and misdemeanors in California, and Supreme Court precedent states that the fact that a person knew he was on probation does not establish that he knew he could not possess a gun.
Despite McKeown’s dissent, Trump judge Bress’ deciding vote resulted in the conviction of Raul Adrian Torres for felony possession of a gun, even though the lower court improperly admitted into evidence an important statement he made in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights under Miranda. The ruling will also make it easier for government to avoid the consequences of police abuse of people’s rights by claiming that such errors were “harmless.” With seats right now to fill on the Ninth Circuit, the case underlines the importance of our fight for our courts to help ensure accountability for abuse and improper conduct by police.