Suit Against Detectives Involved in Dismissed Murder Conviction Allowed to Proceed by 10th Circuit

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Lawrence Montoya was 14 years old when he confessed to murder after being interrogated by Denver detectives. He was 15 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison and 29 when he was exonerated and released, spending over 13 years in prison. Now, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Montoya can proceed with a civil lawsuit brought against the detectives whose investigation led to his conviction. 

The federal appeals court on June 3 affirmed a decision by a lower court that four detectives — Martin Vigil, Michael Martinez, Jonathan Priest and R.D. Schnieder Jr. —  aren’t protected by qualified immunity against claims that they violated Montoya’s constitutional rights during their investigation. 

Represented by attorneys at Fisher & Byrialsen, PLLC, Montoya sued the City and County of Denver as well as four detectives in 2016 alleging that their investigation, which led to his 2000 conviction, violated his Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 14th Amendment rights. The complaint claims that the detectives coerced his confession and manipulated evidence to frame him for the crime. An amended complaint alleged that the officers’ behavior violated protections created by the Supreme Court case Franks v. Delaware. 

On New Year’s Eve in 2000, a 29-year-old teacher, Emily Johnson, was brutally beaten at her home in North Denver; she later died from her injuries. The keys to her 1995 Lexus were taken and the car was later found abandoned in a ditch. 

Denver police officers followed a number of leads to find Johnson’s killer, including testimony from a group of boys who said they rode in the Lexus on the night of her murder. This testimony led officers to question Montoya, who was one of the boys in the car. 

Montoya was interrogated for two and half hours on Jan. 10, 2000 by Vigil, Martinez and Priest. At first, he was interrogated with his mother present, but she left the room after detectives suggested to Montoya that it’d be better if she wasn’t there for the interrogation. 

Video and transcripts of the interrogation show that Montoya initially denied being at Johnson’s home or involved in the car theft. But, after police pressed him using interrogation tactics, Montoya confessed to beating Johnson. Some of the tactics used by the detectives included claiming they had evidence that he was at the crime scene, falsely claiming others had told them Montoya was the killer and telling him he wouldn’t be allowed to leave until he confessed. 

A federal court later determined that the confession Montoya gave officers was inconsistent with the crime scene and footage of the interrogation showed that many of his incriminating statements came after the detectives made leading comments. 

Schneider, the other plaintiff named in the civil suit, used the confession to get an arrest affidavit from a Denver judge.  

At trial, all statements made by Montoya during the confession without his mother were suppressed. Prosecutors instead relied on claims that his shoes and coat were found at the scene of the crime and testimony from another Gilliam Detention Center inmate, where Montoya was being held, that Montoya confessed to beating Johnson. 

A jury found Montoya guilty of felony murder, aggravated, first-degree murder and aggravated motor vehicle theft and sentenced him to prison in 2000. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in 2004. 

In 2013, Montoya filed a petition for post-conviction relief after the DNA of two other youths was taken from a pair of shoes and jacket at the scene. Those two youths were previously identified as part of the investigation. All charges he was convicted of were dismissed in 2014. By this time, Montoya was 29 years old and had spent close to half his life in prison. 

While Montoya’s confession wasn’t used at trial, detectives relied on it to obtain his arrest warrant and it was also used to support prosecutors charging him with the murder. 

In his federal lawsuit filed in 2016, Montoya asks the court to grant him $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life and other suffering he sustained after his conviction and imprisonment. Montoya also asked a jury to hear his case. In an amended complaint, Montoya argued, among other things, that by using the confession to secure search warrants, the detectives violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Franks v. Delaware, which prevents officers from using knowingly false statements to obtain an arrest affidavit. 

A federal judge ruled against a motion to dismiss the case filed by the detectives and Denver based on claims that they were covered by qualified immunity and that Montoya’s case was barred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Heck v. Humphrey. The district court wasn’t convinced that testimony about Montoya riding in the stolen Lexus was enough for probable cause.

On appeal, the detectives asked the 10th Circuit to reconsider the lower court’s decision that they weren’t protected by qualified immunity and that Heck didn’t apply. The three detectives who interrogated Montoya argued that since they weren’t involved in writing the arrest affidavit, they can’t be included in a Franks violation. All four officers also argued that the affidavit supported probable cause for the crime of accessory to murder. 

The 10th Circuit was not persuaded by either point. 

On the first argument, the 10th Circuit reasoned that drafting an affidavit isn’t insulated from gathering information used to justify it. All three detectives personally had a role in obtaining the affidavit, the court held. “The notion that the officers who allegedly manufactured the false evidence somehow did not participate in the Franks violation is meritless,” wrote Judge Veronica Rossman for the unanimous panel. 

The second argument of the detectives claimed that in January 2000, when the affidavit was granted and the Franks violation could’ve occurred, the “any crime” rule wasn’t established. The “any crime” rule holds that when a Franks violation happens, whether or not an affidavit sets out probable cause for other crimes isn’t relevant and the warrant is still invalid. Montoya’s affidavit, the detectives argued, set out probable cause that he was an accessory and the “any crime” rule wasn’t established until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2004. The 10th Circuit didn’t dig into the legal merits of this point. The district court didn’t find evidence to support probable cause for the accessory charge, so the appeals court didn’t review it, it explained. 

The 10th Circuit also didn’t consider the argument brought by detectives that the U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey, which bars civil suits that could overturn a conviction, applies. One of Montoya’s convictions as an accessory to the crime hasn’t been dismissed, the detectives argued, meaning that a decision in the civil suit around qualified immunity would violate Heck. The 10th Circuit ruled that this argument “is not inextricably intertwined with the qualified immunity issues” and declined to consider the appeal. 

The 10th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order and dismissed the Heck appeal.

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