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10th Circuit rejects Denver detectives’ qualified immunity claims in coerced murder confession

Denver law enforcement arrested 14-year-old Lawrence Montoya in 2000 after coercing a murder confession and issuing a faulty arrest warrant.

(CN) — Denver detectives who coerced a false murder confession from a 14-year-old in 2000 are not entitled to qualified immunity in his civil suit, affirmed the 10th Circuit on Friday.

While investigating the murder of 29-year-old schoolteacher Emily Johnson, law enforcement arrested then 14-year-old Lawrence Montoya after witnesses reported seeing “young Hispanic males” exiting Johnson’s stolen Lexus later that day.

Through interrogation, threats, false evidence ploys and leading questions, the detectives coerced a confession later used to convict Montoya of murder and sentence him to life without parole.

In 2014, Montoya entered a plea deal, trading a credited 10-year-sentence for a guilty plea of accessory to murder. He sued the city and county of Denver in June 2016, naming Denver detectives Martin Vigil and Michael Martinez along with Lt. Jonathan Priest for coercing the false confession. Detective R.D. Schneider wrote up the arrest warrant.

A federal judge has twice refused Denver’s requests to dismiss the lawsuit, first in 2017 and again in 2021. Each time the detectives appealed.

"The district court concluded these allegations were sufficient to make out a clearly established Franks violation. We agree,” wrote Biden-appointed Circuit Judge Veronica Rossman, in a 22-page opinion.

The 1978 Supreme Court case Franks v. Delaware established that an arrest warrant violates the Constitution when knowingly including false statements or leaving out facts that would otherwise prevent the warrant from being issued. On appeal, the three detectives who interrogated Montoya claimed they didn’t commit a Franks violation because they didn’t write the arrest affidavit.

Nevertheless the panel found, “The notion that the officers who allegedly manufactured the false evidence somehow did not participate in the Franks violation is meritless."

The detectives also argued that the warrant would still have been legal because Montoya might have been an accessory to the murder. The district court found the warrant didn’t support an arrest for any other crimes once the false statements were removed. The 10th Circuit agreed.

"Whatever the merits of this argument may be, we need not reach them,” Rossman wrote. “As Mr. Montoya points out, the district court expressly found that the affidavit did not establish probable cause for accessory, and defendants fail to challenge this factual finding on appeal. Accordingly, they waived review of this issue."

The civil suit now returns to the court of Senior U.S. District Judge John Kane, a Jimmy Carter appointee, in the U.S. District of Colorado.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, a George W. Bush appointee, and Donald Trump-appointed Circuit Judge Joel Carson rounded out the panel.

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