Immunity Claim Shields Detectives from Lawsuit

10th Circuit reverses lower court decision, protecting Denver police officers from claims of Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals last week reversed a district court decision that had allowed Lawrence Montoya to pursue constitutional violations, including claims of malicious prosecution and coerced confession, against members of the Denver Police Department. The 10th Circuit, however, found that qualified immunity and absolute testimonial immunity shield the detectives from Montoya’s claims. 

The case, Montoya v. Vigil and City and County of Denver, stems from the murder of Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old Denver school teacher. On the morning of January 1, 2000, a neighbor found Johnson dead in her backyard. The neighbor also noted that Johnson’s vehicle was not at her house. Denver police detectives Martin Vigil and Michael Martinez investigated the crime, and a tip led them to interview a man named Nicholas Martinez. 

Martinez told police he and his cousin, Lloyd Martinez, had discovered Johnson’s white Lexus unlocked and found the keys inside. He said they picked up some friends and took the car for a cruise—that was it, he said. One of the other names Nicholas Martinez gave to police was Luke Anaya, Montoya’s cousin. No one claimed Montoya, who at the time was 14 and in 8th grade, was involved in the crime; nevertheless, because he seemed to know many of the people who were implicated, the police interviewed him. 

Beginning at 8 p.m. on January 10, 2000, Montoya spoke to detectives Vigil and Martinez for about two and a half hours. Montoya’s mother was present for about the first 40 minutes of the interview; after that, she verbally agreed to allowing Montoya to be interviewed alone. 

The complaint states “it was apparent that [Montoya] suffered from clear cognitive deficiencies and developmental delays.” During the interrogation, Montoya claimed that he was not involved in the robbery or the murder and had been asleep at the time, but then later stated he had been part of the joyride and also admitted to having entered Johnson’s house. The police used that information to obtain an arrest warrant and Montoya was charged with felony murder, aggravated robbery, first degree burglary, and first-degree aggravated vehicle theft. 

Prior to trial — a joint proceeding with Nicholas and Lloyd Martinez — the court ruled that statements made by Montoya when his mother wasn’t present could not be used because she had not signed a written parental waiver. Still, the prosecution argued Montoya was guilty, presenting evidence such as a pair of boots that were apparently owned by Montoya and matched footprints found at the crime scene and the testimony of a kid named Matthew Hernandez. Hernandez had been housed at the same juvenile detention facility as Montoya and said that Montoya admitted he was guilty. A jury convicted Montoya and a judge sentenced him to life in prison. 

More than 13 years later, Montoya filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel and that he was innocent. In the summer of 2014, Montoya and the prosecution agreed on a new plea deal to a charge of accessory after the fact and Montoya was released on time served. According the 10th Circuit opinion, written by Judge Timothy Tymkovich, “at the hearing on June 16, 2014, the state explained it made the compromise because the ineffective assistance of counsel challenge would have been a ‘horse race.’ App. 94–95. The prosecution went on to note the victim’s family wanted Montoya to be released, so the agreement was ‘being entered into in the interest of justice, not so much concession on the 35(c).’ App. 94. Montoya’s counsel, by contrast, maintained that Montoya’s petition would likely have prevailed, but that Montoya agreed to the deal.”

Following his release, Montoya filed suit, complaining the detectives had “violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from malicious prosecution and false arrest, as well as his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.” 

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied by the district court. Setting aside a handful of questions for which the 10th Circuit found it did not have jurisdiction, the federal appeals court in particular reversed two of the lower court’s findings. 

First, concerning the question of malicious prosecution, the 10th Circuit noted there are five relevant factors that must be proven: “(1) the defendant caused the plaintiff’s continued confinement or prosecution; (2) the original action terminated in favor of the plaintiff; (3) no probable cause supported the original arrest, continued confinement, or prosecution; (4) the defendant acted with malice; and (5) the plaintiff sustained damages.” The defendants challenged only the second factor, arguing that the case did not technically terminate in favor of Montoya. 

In the 10th Circuit opinion, Tymkovich wrote, “In this case, the prosecution agreed to vacate Montoya’s conviction as a compromise after Montoya filed a petition for relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence. Montoya argues this vacatur sufficiently demonstrates his innocence, and thus claims the criminal proceedings terminated in his favor. Looking to the prosecution’s stated reasons, as well as to the surrounding circumstances, we conclude Montoya has failed to allege a favorable termination. Accepting the facts Montoya alleges as true and construing them in his favor, the question of Montoya’s innocence was left ‘unresolved’ by the vacatur of his prior conviction.”

The second part of the 10th Circuit’s reversal concerned Montoya’s Fifth Amendment claim, which the defense refuted by asserting “absolute testimonial immunity.” In this case, the 10th Circuit noted: “The Supreme Court has defined this immunity broadly, explaining that ‘a trial witness has absolute immunity with respect to any claim based on the witness’ testimony.’… It therefore falls to us to decide whether Montoya’s Fifth Amendment claim is ‘based on’ trial testimony.” 

The court again reversed and found in favor of the defendant. “Put differently,” Tymkovich wrote, “Montoya is not complaining the Detectives coerced his confession and that his statements happened to be used against him through trial testimony as opposed to some other means; he is claiming both that they coerced his confession and that Detective Vigil unlawfully introduced his statements by disobeying the suppression order. Shielding witnesses from claims their testimony was unlawful is precisely what absolute testimonial immunity is meant to do.” 

— Chris Outcalt

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