United States v. Shane Young (10th Cir. July 2020)

The Federal Docket

July 15, 2020

Fifth Amendment/Confessions – A confession given during an interrogation is involuntary if the interrogator makes false representations and improper promises about possible sentences, beneficial effects of cooperation that are incorrect, and the relationship between the agent and the judge.

Shane Young pled guilty to possession with the intent to distribute under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) and was sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment and 60 months’ supervised release. Young had fled police during a traffic stop and was apprehended. Officers recovered two substances containing methamphetamine, four grams and ninety-three grams respectively.

After his arrest, Young allegedly confessed to an FBI agent during an interrogation in the county jail. After advising Young of his Miranda rights, which Young waived, the FBI agent proceeded to emphasize his desire to help Young. The agent informed Young that he faced “five to ten years” for the possession of the smaller amount of methamphetamine. The agent repeatedly referenced personal conversations with the judge that would oversee Young’s case regarding Young’s possible sentence.  The FBI agent also said numerous times that, if Young cooperated, the agent would relay that good behavior to the judge and that every truthful answer to a question “ticks time off how much” Young would actually see. At the subsequent suppression hearing, despite finding that the agent made false representations and improper promises of leniency that were coercive in nature, the district court denied Young’s motion to suppress.

On appeal, Young argued that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress his confession, which was given involuntarily. The government did not challenge the district court’s findings that the agent made false representations and promises of leniency.

The Tenth Circuit agreed, holding that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated that the agent’s “conduct was coercive” and “that Young’s capacity for self-determination was critically impaired, rendering his confession involuntary.”

The Court held that the agent’s misrepresentations to Young about his possible sentence, the “promised leniency if Young incriminated himself,” and the “improper representations about [the agent’s] purported access to a federal judge” were coercive. First, the agent misrepresented the sentence Young faced; neither possession with intent to distribute ninety-seven grams nor four grams has a “five to ten” year sentence. Second, the agent “repeatedly told Young he had spoken with a federal judge who had reviewed the case,” even though the agent had not. The agent further emphasized that he would inform the judge of Young’s cooperation, which the agent incorrectly stated would directly result in a reduction of Young’s sentence.

The Court noted that “some aspects of the interrogation were not coercive,” since Young was advised of his constitutional rights, he confessed “within minutes,” and had previously terminated an interrogation, thereby demonstrating his knowledge of his constitutional protections. However, the Court held that these aspects were not dispositive. The Court noted that that, although Young had “prior experience with the criminal justice system,” that state system “experience did not necessarily make him less susceptible to believing promises of leniency and misrepresentations” in the federal system. The Court held that Young’s personal characteristics “could not withstand the coercion” from the FBI agent.

Appeal from the Western District of Oklahoma

Opinion by Lucero, joined by Kelly and Phillips

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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