By Dan Christensen,BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward State Attorney’s Office has dropped a felony burglary charge against a 15-year-old boy who defense attorneys say was coerced by Fort Lauderdale Police into falsely confessing to a crime he did not commit.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is making an issue of the case as “yet another instance of police misconduct” that Broward State Attorney Michael Satz has done nothing to correct.
“Because of your office’s inaction, there is no distinction between right and wrong when it comes to police interrogations in Broward County,” Finkelstein wrote in a May 14 letter to Satz that cited prior examples of false confessions during Satz’s 38 years as state attorney.
Satz did not respond directly. But Maria M. Schneider, the assistant state attorney in charge of the juvenile division, later told Finkelstein by letter that she was “perplexed” by the allegation “because this youth did not confess…There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that the youth admitted committing any crime.”
Indeed, the youth repeatedly denied entering the home or taking anything. But police and court records also show that while under police duress, the boy gave detectives incriminating statements that led authorities to charge him with burglary of a dwelling, a second-degree felony.
“It should be noted the subject later identified as (——-) subsequently confessed to committing the burglary and was placed into custody by Detective (Daniel) Gowans,” wrote Officer A. Agular in his sworn affidavit the day of the incident.
JUDGE TOSSES STATEMENTS
Broward Circuit Judge Michael J. Orlando tossed out statements allegedly made by the youth, a student at Fort Lauderdale’s Whiddon-Rogers Education Center, to police following a Feb. 27 suppression hearing in juvenile court.
Luz Quiroz, who lives in the 3600 block of SW 23rd St., told police she was doing laundry when she heard a noise coming from her son’s bedroom.
A police report says Quiroz said a young, unknown Hispanic male wearing a gray hoodie and tan pants had climbed through a window and was looking through the room. He bolted when she startled him.
Quiroz’s son, Anthony Arcila, chased the suspect, but lost him. He told police that a black HP laptop computer was missing from the bedroom, but a few days later said he’d been mistaken and that it was not missing.
A police K9 unit later found a hooded gray sweatshirt in the area.
Detective Gowans and his partner, Detective Shane Calvey, canvassed the area and found the 15-year-old at his home about a block from where the sweatshirt was found. Gowans wrote in his report that when he began to question the boy he began to cry, stated “it was me” and offered that while he hadn’t entered the home he’d gone there to steal “weed.”
The youth was arrested the same day, Nov. 30, and charged in a petition for delinquency. Burglary of a dwelling is a crime that’s punishable by 15 years in prison for adults. Juveniles can be placed in a youth program for six to 18 months, or until their 21st birthday, according Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes.
Assistant Public Defender Jeffrey Hittleman, the youth’s lawyer, asked the judge to suppress self-incriminating statements, contending they were made as the result of an unlawful interrogation.
Hittleman argued the boy had not been informed of his Miranda rights against self-incrimination, and that police repeatedly had threatened to call Child Protective Services to take away his sister’s two-year-old toddler if he “did not admit to committing the burglary.”
‘YOU WON’T TAKE MY SISTER’S BABY, RIGHT?’
“If I admit it to you, you won’t take my sister’s baby, right?” the boy asked a detective, according to defense court filings.
Hittleman’s conclusion: “It is hard to conceive of circumstances more coercive than those presented here.”
Gowan didn’t mention anything about calling the Child Protective Services in his police report. But he and another officer acknowledged they’d brought it up while testifying in February.
“They explained that when they entered the youth’s home they smelled the odor of recently burned marijuana,” Schneider wrote in a May 17 letter to Finkelstein. “The officers testified that, because the youth’s sister and her toddler were in the home, they advised the youth that he was putting his sister in jeopardy of CPS involvement if he continued to engage in criminal activity around the child.
“Regardless of whether we accept the officers’ version of events or the (different) one testified to by the youth’s family, such statements, in the context they were made, are inappropriate,” Schneider said.
Nevertheless, Schneider said in an interview that prosecutors disagree with defense assertions that police coerced a false confession from the youth.
“They are characterizing it as a confession,” said Schneider. “We don’t accept that characterization. We don’t condone false confessions.”
In her letter to Finkelstein, and during the interview, Schneider noted prosecutors had “counseled” the officers not to make such statements during future interrogations because they could “have a negative and intimidating effect on a listener.”
“Additional measures to educate both our attorneys and police agencies regarding such issues have been and continue to be taken,” Schneider said.
No disciplinary action was taken against Gowans or others in the case, Schneider said.
“The bottom line is this is not something for which sanctions are appropriate, but if it reoccurs that might be different,” she said. “The legal remedy here is that the (defendant’s) statement gets tossed.”
But Finkelstein, citing the recent false confession murder case against Anthony Caravella and others, wants Broward prosecutors to do more.
“I am asking you to institute some controls,” he said in his May 14 letter to Satz. “At the very least, train your lawyers to recognize police misconduct when it’s right under their noses.”