Ruling That Upheld Officer's Interrogation of a Suspect with a Mental Illness and Daughter Hospitalized for Behavioral and Drug Problems Not Disturbed

Developments in Mental Health Law, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Ruling That Upheld Officer's Interrogation of a Suspect with a Mental Illness and Daughter Hospitalized for Behavioral and Drug Problems Not Disturbed


Police interrogations of individuals with a mental illness suspected of a crime and alleged child victims of sexual abuse have raised considerable concern in recent years.

The Supreme Court declined to review a ruling that involved both.

In May 1994, a man's youngest daughter experienced behavioral and drug problems that led to her hospitalization. While receiving treatment, she claimed her father sexually abused her. The man lived with his wife and three daughters. Responding to a police detective's request, the father went to the local police station, where the officer gave him his Miranda rights. He then interrogated the man for the next eight hours without a break for food or water. The officer would raise his voice but never yelled or used physical violence. He did call the father a liar and told him his daughters would be forced to testify if he did not confess. The father initially denied he sexually abused his daughter. He was taking medication for a bipolar disorder and asked to call his therapist, a request that was rejected. Ultimately, the father signed a confession in which he admitted abusing all of his daughters. The officer then interviewed the two older daughters, who denied the alleged abuse. The officer then visited the youngest daughter at the hospital. She initially denied the abuse, but after a number of hours and having been told that she would have to stay at the hospital until she disclosed her father's abuse, she described incidents of abuse. The officer then revisited the other two daughters who now admitted to being abused by their father.

The man pled guilty to sexually abusing his daughters, but after spending five years in prison, the conviction was vacated and the local prosecutor dropped all charges. The man subsequently filed a federal civil rights action against the police officer claiming that the investigation amounted to a violation of his constitutional rights.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case after finding the investigation did not constitute a constitutional violation. The court noted that the Constitution guarantees the right to be free from coercive interrogation and that a coercive interrogation exists when the officer's tactics undermine a suspect's ability to exercise free will. …

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