Tenth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity To Social Worker Who Fabricated A Mother's Confession Of Child Abuse

from the stop-doing-this-kind-of-shit-and-you-can-stop-being-sued-for-it dept

For the second time in about as many weeks, an appeals court has handed down a decision denying qualified immunity to a government employee. That’s good! We don’t see a lot of these. Getting more than one in a month almost feels excessive, as if we’re being set up by the courts for a few months of anger and disappointment to offset this judicial largesse.

Offsetting this unexpected goodwill towards the appellate courts in general is this fact: both cases also involve what should unquestionably be obvious violations of rights. Both cases involve fabricated evidence.

The one recently handled by the Third Circuit alleged officers hid evidence that would have cleared a man falsely accused of murder… and they, along with the prosecutor, kept this information from the imprisoned man for 25 years. Truly obscene and truly a blindingly obvious violation of rights, as the court noted:

We conclude that the constitutional rule that framing criminal defendants through use of fabricated evidence, including false or perjured testimony, violates their constitutional rights applies with such obvious clarity that it is unreasonable for us to conclude anything other than that the detectives were on sufficient notice that their fabrication of evidence violated clearly established law.

When you’re that awful, courts don’t need a case directly on point to deny you immunity.

The same goes for Marcia Tuggle, a caseworker for the Alamosa (CO) Department of Human Services. While investigating suspected child abuse after a doctor diagnosed a two year old child with serious brain injuries, she accompanied police officers to interviews with suspects. The child was in the care of Patrick Ramirez at the time the injury was discovered, left there by his mother. The child died two months later and police opened an investigation.

They first interviewed Ramirez who told police he was carrying the child when he fell. The officer and the social worker also interviewed the boy’s biological mother, Krystal O’Connell. Here’s how that went down, according to the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)

Sergeant Alejo first interviewed Ms. O’Connell without anyone else in the room. Later the same day, Sergeant Alejo and Ms. Tuggle conducted a joint interview of Ms. O’Connell. According to Ms. O’Connell, Sergeant Alejo hurled accusations while Ms. Tuggle watched. Ms. Tuggle noted the responses, stating that Ms. O’Connell had admitted shaking Kyran and slamming him on the bed. Ms. O’Connell denied saying this and presented evidence that Ms. Tuggle had fabricated the confession

O’Connell was convicted of child abuse. Her conviction was overturned in 2017. This lawsuit followed.

Unbelievably, the social worker argued she should be granted qualified immunity because there was no prior case law that would have made her aware that fabricating a confession and handing it over to be used during the investigation and prosecution of O’Connell was a violation of her rights.

Alternately, she argued she wasn’t actually at fault at all because her notes were for her own social services investigation, not the criminal investigation that ended in O’Connell’s conviction. Wrong on both counts, says the Tenth Circuit.

From Ms. Tuggle’s own testimony, the existence of an ongoing criminal investigation would have been obvious. And Ms. Tuggle’s own notes reflect Ms. O’Connell’s confession to the crime of child abuse. From the existence of the criminal investigation and the confession of child abuse, Ms. Tuggle recognized that her office would need to share her notes with the sheriff’s office.

So under Ms. O’Connell’s version of events, Ms. Tuggle obviously knew—when she fabricated the confession—that her fabricated report would go to the sheriff’s office to advance the criminal investigation. Given that knowledge, any reasonable social worker in Ms. Tuggle’s position would have known that lying about a confession would contribute to the prosecution of Ms. O’Connell for child abuse.

The rights violation is so obvious there’s no need to find exact precedent.

Given that knowledge, Ms. O’Connell’s version of events would create an obvious denial of due process. We thus affirm the denial of summary judgment to Ms. Tuggle.

Equally unbelievably, there’s a dissent — written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe — that argues the social worker should be granted immunity because she had no way of knowing fabricating a confession would violate someone’s rights.

When considered in the factual context of this case, I find no clearly applicable Tenth Circuit or Supreme Court case law that would have alerted Defendant that her actions would violate the constitutional rights Plaintiff now asserts.

As to the cases cited by the plaintiffs, the dissenting judge says this:

None of those cases would have provided a reasonable social worker in Defendant’s position with fair notice that fabricating a social services report violates constitutional rights related to a criminal investigation. Franks and Pierce do not describe similarly situated officials. Those cases described law enforcement officers or those working for law enforcement for the purpose of investigating crimes. Here, Defendant was a social worker responsible for drafting a social services report. To be sure, Sergeant Alejo was present during Defendant’s interview with Plaintiff, and Defendant was likely aware of a potential criminal prosecution. The mere presence of a law enforcement officer, however, is clearly dissimilar from a forensic scientist investigating crime scene evidence while employed by the police department and knowing full well the evidentiary purpose and importance of her report. Thus, Defendant lacked fair notice that the holdings of Franks or Pierce would apply to a social worker in her position.

But why should someone need “fair notice” they can’t — as government employees with the power to deprive people of their liberties — falsify confessions? Who knows, but Judge Briscoe believes this social worker shouldn’t be held accountable for her inexcusable actions simply because no other social worker in a similar situation had done anything equivalently awful prior to the Tenth Circuit taking up this appeal.

Do you need another reason to hate the doctrine of qualified immunity? Judge Briscoe supplies one. [Emphasis in the original.]

As the district court observed, “common sense” should have informed Defendant that “a social worker, like any other public official, cannot knowingly create false information in furtherance of an investigation.” Yet, neither common sense nor our prior case law would have informed Defendant that she could not do so for constitutional reasons, as opposed to some general, moral reason. And in determining whether Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, we must look to the constitutionality of Defendant’s actions.

Thanks to qualified immunity, government employees can engage in actions that are morally or even criminally wrong and expect to get away with it simply because no court previously declared similar immoral or criminal acts constitutional violations. So, it’s basically the honor system but for people who don’t have any.

People who aren’t government employees can’t escape lawsuits when they fuck up someone’s life enough that they get sued for it by telling the court there’s no precedent directly correlating to their fuckery. But government employees can do this, which means those we expect to see held to a higher standard frequently aren’t — not by their supervisors, not by the agencies they work for, and in far too many cases, not by this nation’s courts.

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Comments on “Tenth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity To Social Worker Who Fabricated A Mother's Confession Of Child Abuse”

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37 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

As glad as I am that the court got this right it is absolutely horrifying that a circuit court judge apparently sees nothing wrong in falsifying claims of child abuse because no-one felt it necessary to tell the guilty party that you’re not supposed to do that.

‘Framing someone for a crime they didn’t commit’ should be seen as so obviously wrong that there’s no question that it’s unacceptable in any situation, the fact that one judge got that wrong just shows that the social worker is not the only person grossly unfit for their job.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It has been clear for quite some time now that the US courts generally think their job is finding ways to avoid seeing things "as so obviously wrong that there’s no question that it’s unacceptable in any situation," at least when those things are done by government officials, particularly police.

It is a serious indictment of a corrupt system that cases like this one are unexpected outliers.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

Re: Re: Re:

Judges are not usually employed out of law school. They have previous job experience, and previous careers. When politics are on a law-and-order shtik, successful prosecutors are more likely to get nominated and confirmed than (avaunt!) successful public defenders. The metrics for "successful" favor bending the law in a certain direction.

Success begets confirmation bias: it must be the right thing to do if it gets rewarded, doesn’t it?

I think it likely this particular judge is not as much defending that horrible social worker as she is self-justifying the frame of mind that got her her job. Or that she sees in someone she appreciates.

Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This^. The

"successful" prosecutor -> judge

and

"successful" prosecutor -> politician

pipelines are a big part of the wrong-think problems that we see in all branches of government.

Sometimes I think that maybe some hard legal restrictions on this sort of thing might be beneficial, ie if you have been a prosecutor you are ineligible to be a judge or to run for elected office (ineligible for appointed / hired political offices, as well). In the same vein, maybe ex-military should be ineligible for civilian law enforcement positions. I think there exists at least one semi-example of this in the seven year waiting period for ex-military to be Secretary of Defense. While there are valid objections to this idea (basic liberty being one of them), there are also strong many arguments in it’s favor, as well as a wealth of empirical and historical data supporting this idea. There is a discussion of this idea here.

In any case, I think it would be worth a try, if for no other reason than to highlight just who would object, and the (probably BS) reasons they would give for their objections. I think it would be quite revealing.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re:

My thoughts exactly.

I was already upset that a social worker thought it would be legal to deliberately frame someone, or at least that she could evade the responsibility of doing it… then I read that one judge in the panel thought she was right.

What kind of country is it where you find judges thinks that breaking the law is acceptable as long as nobody was convicted for doing it in the exact same way before?

Fortunately in this case, there was only one in a panel, but given that this is a Supreme Court precedent, there was at least one case where a majority of judges – at the highest level – thought that was a good legal precedent to establish. They didn’t have such a clear-cut case in their hands at the time, but it still created a whole generation of government officials who believe that they can escape prosecution as long as they break the law in a slightly creative way.

It’s time they got discouraged of that notion. It’s way past that time actually.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bobvious says:

Prior laws and examples

No doubt some of those expecting, or attempting to grant, QI will also be the ones invoking God’s name when it suits them.

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour" (Exodus 20:16) seems an appropriately pre-established standard for them, and it pre-dates any "Tenth Circuit or Supreme Court case law that would have alerted Defendant that her actions would violate the constitutional rights Plaintiff now asserts. "

Another inconvenient pre-established standard, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18.)

Further, from Wikipedia, "The Hebrew Bible contains a number of prohibitions against false witness, lying, spreading false reports, etc.[10] For a person who had a charge brought against them and were brought before a religious prosecution, the charge was considered as established only on the evidence of two or three sworn witnesses.[11] In cases where false testimony was suspected, the religious judges were to make a thorough investigation, and if false testimony were proven, the false witness was to receive the punishment he had intended to bring on the person falsely accused.[12] For example, since murder was a capital crime, giving false testimony in a murder case was subject to the death penalty. Those eager to receive or listen to false testimony were also subject to punishment.[13]"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thou_shalt_not_bear_false_witness_against_thy_neighbour

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Prior laws and examples

It’s a shame most people who would use scripture to defend their actions tend to do so either because no secular law or philosophy will have their back or they operate from the unabridged version only they appear to have read wherein is amended at the end;
"P.S. Lest thou faceth a Godless Liberal in Argument at which point none of the above applies. Love, God.
P.P.S. Go smite dem libs but gud, son!"

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"None of those cases would have provided a reasonable social worker in Defendant’s position with fair notice that fabricating a social services report violates constitutional rights related to a criminal investigation."

What in the actual fuck.
Creating a fake report that results in a criminal investigation that only rests on your fake report TOTES doesn’t violate rights.
There is no clear case law stating that government employees shouldn’t lie or fabricate evidence so lets just let her go.
We can totes suborn perjury & then claim no harm no foul.

Your due process rights aren’t Constitutional so you can’t hold the bad actors responsible unless we had a case where we made a ruling that clearly says railroading someone to jail with faked evidence is actually a really bad thing and violates your Constitutional rights.

So what if you were given a shit lawyer, spent 10+ years in prison for a crime you did not commit & the single most important thing was this report saying you totes admitted you killed your baby.

I mean its not like she was denied parole 5 times for refusing to admit she hurt her baby…. oh wait…

Sweet Jeebus.
Her "defense" lawyer didn’t bother to call the coroner who did the autopsy on the child who disagreed with the whole shaken baby syndrome. Leaving the jury to think SBS is a definitive thing instead of junk science… like when they got actual experts to look at the records and they stated the injuries were in line with the original story that the guy watching the kid had him on his shoulders & fell in the yard.

Wait… so the cop told the guy who had fallen while carrying the baby he was lying & just covering up for the mother over & over. Then told him to tell a story that supported the made up claim that mom had shaken the baby the night before.

So its not just made up claims that screwed her, it was a cop who made a decision what happened & then pushed as hard as he could to arrive at that conclusion. Thankfully he’s not a cop anymore… hes an investigator for the DA now. o_O

K`Tetch (profile) says:

I think Judge Mark Beck Briscoe is of greater concern.
I mean, who says she has to follow the law, I mean "I find no clearly applicable Tenth Circuit or Supreme Court case law that would have alerted [The Judge] that her actions would violate the constitutional rights Plaintiff now asserts." You know, like a fair trial?

And contempt and Perjury are right out the window in her court, because clearly she forgot about the oath when being sworn in "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" – I am not a lawyer (let alone a judge that spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor, 11 years on the Kansas Court of Appeals – 5 as Chief judge – and 26.5 years on the 10th circuit court of appeals – again
with 5 years as its chief judge), but I’d have thought that she might have found that false evidence testified to in court (directly, or as supporting evidence for any actions taken) would be considered precedent, no?

Or has she found the loophole that – until now – it was only cops that weren’t allowed to present false evidence in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah? And no-one had ever thought to do anything about it?

Talk about out-of-touch Septuagenarians, she’s so delusional that both MTG and the pillow guy call her nutso.

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Jeff Green (profile) says:

Worrying thought

Is the dissenting judge worried that she has been misapplying the law for years and is worried that someone might think a judge should know that throwing-people-in-jail-because-you-don’t-like-them-even-though-they’ve-not-broken-any-laws was wrong and she could end up in trouble? I REALLY hope that isn’t the case and she is simply an idiot but who knows?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Remember guys, the people employed by law enforcement agencies to work for and advise them are not expected to know that lying is wrong, that actions have consequences, or anything else that most of us learned well before puberty. People with literal power over life and death need to be told directly that something is wrong, else they can’t possibly know.

I’d say sleep tight, but bad info has caused people to be shot dead in the US while doing exactly that, so…

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

Re: Re:

Remember guys, the people employed by law enforcement agencies to work for and advise them are not expected to know that lying is wrong, that actions have consequences, or anything else that most of us learned well before puberty.

Nonsense. That is like saying people wear raincoats with the expectation that water stops being wet. One of the principal job perks of working for law enforcement is not that lying ceases to be wrong or actions stop having consequences, but that you aren’t punished for lying and are not liable for the consequences of your actions.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

there’s a dissent — written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe — that argues the social worker should be granted immunity because she had no way of knowing fabricating a confession would violate someone’s rights

I am not a judge. I am not a lawyer. I have no legal training, no specialized knowledge of the law, and no experience inside a courtroom in any capacity.

But even I know that making up a confession to put someone in jail for a crime they didn’t commit violates that someone’s civil rights.

Michael says:

Some context would be nice

O’Connell was convicted of child abuse. Her conviction was overturned in 2017.

It would be great if the article told us when the events involved happened.

A quick Google search tells me that the death of this child happened in 2003, and the conviction was 2004. So it took 13 years for some justice in this case, and another 4 before liar Marcia Tuggle finally might now be held accountable.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Some context would be nice

But revenge in the USA is generally sending them to jail.
NOT paying you back PERSONALLY for the next 17 years you lost n the past.
It will be the State paying this, NOT the person who did it.
We dont even hold corps responsible anymore. They just raise prices to pay off the gov. NO One loses any wages on the top sectors.

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