Teacher charged in student's kidnapping seeks to block statements to police

Teacher charged in student's kidnapping seeks to block statements to police

December 17th, 2017 by Adam Tamburin in Local Regional News

In this April 20, 2017 photo released by the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office is Tad Cummins. A 15-year-old Tennessee student who was allegedly kidnapped by her teacher and taken to California is back home, a lawyer for the girl's family said Friday, April 21, 2017. The girl is being evaluated and treated by mental health experts specializing in trauma, lawyer Jason Whatley said in a press release. Authorities credit the caretaker of a remote northern California property for helping police find her and arrest her alleged abductor, fired teacher Tad Cummins. (Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office via AP)

In this April 20, 2017 photo released by...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

An attorney for Tad Cummins, the former teacher who fled the state with a teenage student earlier this year, says statements he made to authorities after his arrest were coerced and should not be used in court.

The argument was laid out in court filings released by a federal court judge this month. Cummins' attorney Brent Horst said law enforcement illegally collaborated with Cummins' estranged wife to pressure Cummins to confess that he had sex with his former student. The attorney also accused authorities of threatening Cummins with a harsher penalty if he did not confess.

"Given the number of constitutional violations in this case and the flagrancy of those violations, it is not an exaggeration to say that in thirty years of the practice of criminal law this is one of the most aggravated cases of the trampling of constitutional rights which Defense Counsel has observed," Horst wrote in the filing, which was originally entered under seal.

Cummins disappeared in March with a former student, who was 15, and quickly became the subject of a nationwide manhunt and Amber Alert. After more than five weeks on the lam, he and the girl were found April 20 in a remote forest cabin near Cecilville, Calif.

Cummins was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual conduct.

Horst also said that, after Cummins was arrested, authorities improperly asked his wife to talk to him in hopes of securing a confession. Cummins' ex-wife says in court documents that authorities asked her to speak to Cummins.

Christopher Slobogin, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Vanderbilt University Law School, said that argument could be on shaky legal ground.

Police interrogation manuals often recommend police take advantage of family members to get incriminating statements from suspects, he said.

"Police use of family members to get defendants to talk is not in and of itself constitutionally coercive," he said. "That's going to be a hard argument for the defense to win."

Elsewhere, Horst says authorities suggested Cummins could face rape charges if he didn't confess to consensual sex with the girl, which he ultimately did, according to the documents. That argument could have more legal weight, Slobogin said, if Horst can prove agents were engaging in "pre-plea bargaining."

While authorities can use "trickery and deception" in an interrogation, "a threat or promise by the police" could be considered coercive.

But Cummins' wife urging him to confess wouldn't fit that bill unless she was threatening him. In both cases, the precise wording of the conversations will be the key element of the debate.

"Giving a person a rationalization for confessing, that's not going to be unconstitutional typically," Slobogin said. "It's very important to pin down what was said by both the wife and the police."

Arguments to suppress a confession or comments to police is a typical move for defense attorneys. Prosecutors are expected to respond to Cummins' argument this month, and a decision could be made on the matter as soon as January.

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and atamburin@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @tamburintweets.