Mentally challenged teen and his family sue Modesto police over drive-by shooting arrest

kvaline@modbee.comMay 4, 2014 

— A mentally challenged Modesto teenager and his family are suing the city in federal court, claiming police officers violated the teen’s rights by wrongfully arresting and interrogating him and coercing a confession from him in a 2012 drive-by shooting he did not commit.

Modesto attorney Alonzo Gradford filed the lawsuit April 18 in the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of California. Gradford represents Anthony Nunez, 19, and his mother, stepfather and brother. Gradford did not return several phone calls and the Nunez family could not be reached for comment.

Nunez was arrested during the evening of March 5, 2012, after a patrol officer saw people in a passing car shoot at a Sutter Avenue home in west Modesto. The car stopped and the two people in it ran off. Police searched the neighborhood and arrested Nunez – who was 17 – at his home. Police said at the time they found a gun in the home and believed Nunez had driven the car.

On Sept. 25, 2012, the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office reported that nearly every charge against Nunez had been dropped or found not to be true in juvenile court that week. Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said that after a judge ruled Nunez’s confession inadmissible, prosecutors dismissed charges against Nunez involving assault with a deadly weapon and shooting at a person.

Shipley said the judge found three other charges against Nunez not to be true: discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent matter, evading arrest and possession of a concealed weapon. A charge of resisting arrest was found to be true.

The deputy district attorney who prosecuted Nunez in juvenile court said Judge Susan Siefkin – who retired in November 2013 – was biased in favor of Nunez and erred in ruling his confession was not admissible. Doug Maner – who is now a defense attorney – said he reviewed the transcript of the interrogation and said officers acted appropriately.

“He was given a huge gift,” Maner said. “She did not follow the law.”

Maner said because of Siefkin’s bias he started filing peremptory challenges to prevent her from hearing other serious felony cases involving juveniles. Siefkin could not be reached for comment Friday.

Police Chief Galen Carroll defended his officers. “The Police Department welcomes the opportunity to present the facts of this case in court where it will ultimately be decided,” he said in an email.

Defense attorney Robert Chase, who represented Nunez in juvenile court, disagreed. Chase said Siefkin ruled correctly by tossing out the confession. “It was coercion,” he said. “It was blatant coercion.”

Chase said Nunez repeatedly told officers he was not involved in the drive-by shooting, but they had made up their minds that Nunez was involved and would not stop badgering him until he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Chase said Siefkin reviewed a transcript and video recording of the interrogation in making her decision.

The lawsuit states Nunez is mentally challenged. Chase declined to elaborate but said Nunez was a special-education student. The lawsuit claims Nunez was placed in a small room after he was arrested and interrogated constantly for several hours by police Officers Dan Starr and John Wesley. Nunez repeatedly denied the allegations and asked for his mother, according to the lawsuit.

“After hours of interrogation and the promise to see his mother, Nunez finally confessed to robbery, drive-by shooting, evading police officers and resisting arrest,” the lawsuit states.

Chase said he presented other evidence in court – including testimony from a next-door neighbor who Chase said saw the real suspects run by his home – to prove his client’s innocence. Chase said Nunez was home with his family when the drive-by shooting occurred.

The arresting officers were told Nunez was mentally challenged to the extent that he could not adequately comprehend the interrogation, and his mother, Kenni Nunez, repeatedly requested to accompany her son, according to the lawsuit. She was not allowed to go with her son.

A McGeorge School of Law professor said California does not allow parents to be with their minor children during interrogations. Professor John Myers added that having a mental disability in and of itself does not automatically mean a confession has been coerced or that a suspect can’t waive his rights and speak to the police.

Myers – who specializes in criminal law and procedure – said the courts look at the totality of the interrogation when deciding whether a confession was coerced. He added they weigh the suspect’s age and intelligence in making their decision.

The lawsuit also names Officers Lyndon Yates, Mark Phillips, Charlene Young and Joe Overa and Chief Carroll as defendants. It claims the officers violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages but does not state an amount.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service