Oregon Court of Appeals Affirms Suppression of Shaking Confession

State v. Ruiz-Piza (2014)

The Oregon Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial judge’s pretrial exclusion of statements made to detectives by a defendant charged with shaking his infant daughter, finding that the statements were given involuntarily.

In State v. Ruiz-Piza, the defendant brought his infant daughter to the hospital after she was injured. The treating physician did not believe that her injuries were consistent with the defendant’s explanation of how they occurred. Detectives came to the hospital to interview the defendant. Over the course of the next two days, detectives conducted three separate interviews of him at the hospital.

During the interviews, the detectives insisted that the child was shaken, but at first, suggested that the shaking was accidental. The defendant initially responded that the infant was injured when he picked her up quickly to change her. He later said that he playfully tossed the infant up in the air and this may have caused the injury.

In a third interview, one detective told the defendant that the injuries were consistent with a deliberate shaking, but the defendant maintained that he merely playfully tossed his daughter in the air. However, at the end of this last interview, the defendant confessed to deliberately shaking the child.

The State charged the defendant with deliberately shaking his daughter. The trial judge granted the defendant’s pre-trial motion to exclude the statements he made to the detectives during the three interviews, stating that they were given involuntarily. The trial judge found that the defendant’s “will was overborne by two detectives in that hospital room over two days.” The State assigned error to the suppression in an interlocutory appeal.

In Oregon, a defendant’s admissions or confessions are inadmissible if the statements were made in fear of a threat. To admit a confession at trial, the State must prove the confession was given voluntarily. The confession must be “the product of an essentially free, unconstrained and informed choice.”

On appeal, the court considered two threats allegedly contained in the detectives’ interviews: assertions that the infant’s medical treatment would suffer without a confession and implications there would be leniency if the defendant confessed.

The court found that the “officers informed [the] defendant that the way to help his infant daughter was to tell them that he had accidentally shaken her.” While police can inform an interviewee of the actual consequences of silence, in this case there was no evidence that the infant’s care would indeed suffer without a confession.

As for the implication of leniency, the court gave weight to the following statements made by detectives: that “there’s no crime involved” if it was an accident; that there was an assumption of abuse if the defendant did not confess; and that the detectives “have to have an explanation.” The court found that the detectives essentially gave the defendant a choice between confessing and receiving some type of leniency or being prosecuted for abusing his daughter.

The court found that statements were not made voluntarily. It affirmed the trial judge’s suppression of them.