This week, in United States v. Young, the Tenth Circuit held the district court erred in refusing to suppress defendant’s confession, finding the confession was involuntary because it was induced by a federal agent’s misrepresentations about the law and false promises of leniency, including a false promise about the agent’s access to the federal judiciary.
In an interview with local agents, Mr. Young admitted that a small amount of drugs found the morning of his arrest were his, but denied that a much larger quantity found later that day were his. He then revoked his consent to speak. When an FBI Special Agent later questioned Mr. Young, he told Mr. Young he had spoken to the judge, and that Mr. Young faced either a five-year or ten-year charge. The agent then told him that, with each truthful statement he made, he could “physically buy down” his sentence. Within moments, and in response to the agent’s first question, Mr. Young admitted the larger quantity of drugs were his as well.
Mr. Young moved to suppress his confession as involuntary. At the suppression hearing, the agent claimed he misspoke – he meant to say not judge but “prosecutor.” The agent also said he did not know the actual sentencing ranges for Mr. Young’s offenses and was just providing a tangible number to help make his case that “cooperation can pay dividends.” Although the court found the agent made false representations and improper promises of leniency, the judge concluded that Mr. Young’s confession was not involuntary and denied his motion to suppress.
Mr. Young appealed. He argued that, although the district court was correct to find as a factual matter that there was improper coercion, it was wrong in its legal conclusion that Mr. Young’s confession was voluntary.
The Tenth Circuit’s decision
The government did not challenge on appeal the district court’s factual findings. So the Tenth Circuit reviewed (de novo) only the trial court’s legal conclusion that Mr. Young’s confession was voluntary. The Court of Appeals recited the law applicable to determining whether a confession has been coerced, emphasizing the inquiry is based on a totality of the circumstances and requires consideration of “both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation.” (Opinion at 7).
The Court first addressed the agent’s conduct–his misrepresentations and promises of leniency. It was significant that the agent misrepresented the law to Mr. Young, “a factor that weighs in favor of concluding his actions were coercive.” (Opinion at 9). In addition, the agent did not merely inform Mr. Young the cooperation would be viewed favorably by a prosecutor, but said he had spoken with a federal judge who would reward him for his cooperation. “But that is not the way the federal system works,” the Court of Appeals held. Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that some of aspects of the interrogation were not coercive, these factors were not dispositive.
Finally, the Court of Appeals did not agree with the trial judge that Mr. Young’s prior experience with the state criminal justice system would render him less susceptible to believing promises of leniency and misrepresentations by a federal law enforcement officer explaining his access to a federal judge.
The district court’s decision was reversed and the judgment against Mr. Young was vacated.
- Use this decision for its helpful recitation of the well-settled law governing involuntary confessions.
- Note the Court’s repeated emphasis of the totality of the circumstances test (mentioned at least 6 times in the opinion) as the operative framework for assessing voluntariness, making clear no single factor is determinative.
- But take care to view the holding in its factual context. Consider whether the nature of this particular agent’s misrepresentation–that he had personal access to a federal judge–significantly impacted the Court’s view of the ultimate merits.