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Minch v. Dist. of Columbia

July 17, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-3658-01) (Hon. Zoe Bush, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued March 14, 2006

Before RUIZ and KRAMER, Associate Judges, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.

Thomas Minch appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment for the District of Columbia in his civil suit for false arrest, false imprisonment, defamation, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The claims arise from Minch's arrest and overnight detention early in the investigation of the murder of Gallaudet University student Eric Plunkett. Joseph Mesa has since been convicted for the murder. Because the police acted in good faith and within the scope of their duties when they arrested and detained appellant, and issued a press release to that effect, we agree that the District of Columbia was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and affirm.

I. Facts Surrounding the Murder Investigation

In September 2000, Eric Plunkett was murdered by Joseph Mesa -- although the murderer's identity would go undiscovered for over four months, during which time he killed another Gallaudet University student. See Varner v. District of Columbia, 891 A.2d 260, 264 (D.C. 2006) (summarizing facts surrounding the deaths of Gallaudet University students Eric Plunkett and Andrew Varner). On Thursday, September 29, 2000, around 9 p.m., students entered Plunkett's dorm room to check up on him after not having seen or heard from him all day. To their horror, they discovered his lifeless body lying in a blood-splattered room. Plunkett's body was transported to D.C. General Hospital where the medical examiner pronounced him dead and ruled the cause of death as homicide. The autopsy report concluded that Plunkett died from "Blunt Force Trauma and a Broken Neck." The medical examiner believed that the suspect had used a chair in the room, "which was blood spattered," to kill Plunkett.

On Friday, September 29, Detective Kyle Cimiotti and other detectives under his supervision interviewed an estimated eleven students in the dorm. A number of students told the police that Plunkett was gay, and was a member of the gay and lesbian club on campus.

The detectives also interviewed Eric Plunkett's family, specifically asking them about Eric's computer, which was turned on and logged in when his body was found. The family said that Eric used the digital camera that was attached to the laptop to videoconference with them. His mother told the police that Plunkett "suffer[ed] from a mild case of Cerebral Palsy."

On Saturday, September 30, two days after Plunkett's body was found, the detectives continued interviewing students. One witness, whom the police identified as "W-1," told the police that Plunkett had a romantic relationship with "Thomas B." When the police later reinterviewed W-1, along with another witness (W-2), the second witness told the police that Thomas' last name began with "M" and not "B." After going through the school roster, the police presented W-2 with a photo of appellant, Thomas Minch. The witness positively identified Minch as the person who was involved with Plunkett.

Minch's Interview

On October 3, 2000, five days after Plunkett's body was discovered, Detective Cimiotti, along with two sign-language interpreters, approached Minch in the school cafeteria, where Minch agreed to an interview. Minch, who was then eight teen years old, had just entered Gallaudet's freshman class a few weeks earlier. Minch testified that he was taken to MPD's Fifth District station, where the detective "immediately started bombshelling [him] with questions" during an interview that lasted six hours. According to Minch, the detective told him he was under arrest, but "[he] wasn't sure if [the detective] said that because he was trying to get some response out of [him], or something else." Minch explained that he did not ask for a lawyer or call his parents because "[he] was under the assumption that [he] was just being questioned and that [he] would be able to leave."*fn1

Minch testified that Detective Cimiotti threatened him:

I remember that [the detective] said that if I didn't confess to anything, that I'd be put in jail for life -- that I'd be put in jail for life, and that when I got out of jail, that people would think that I was a murderer. At that point, I felt sort of threatened. . . . . [Detective Cimiotti] said that if I didn't confess to the crime that I would be put in jail for some length of time. And that when I got out, people would still think that I was gay, A, and that I was a murderer, B, and they would think all sorts of bad things about me.

Although Minch claimed that it was his "impression that [he] could not use the bathroom," he admitted that Detective Cimiotti told him "at the beginning" that he could take breaks. Minch also acknowledged that there were breaks in the interview "every five to ten questions," when Detective Cimiotti would leave and then return to continue the questioning, and that the detective "offered to get me something, at the beginning, from the vending machine" to eat, as well as food from McDonald's at the end of the interview. Minch said in his deposition that "[i]t's been three years and I don't remember all the questions that [the detective] had." Minch also recalled being unclear at the time of the interview about "some of the questions," and that he "didn't feel like there was enough explanation."

Minch had an alibi for the night that Plunkett was killed. According to Detective James LaFranchise, Minch had told Detective Cimiotti that "he'd been at the theater as an assistant stage manager the night that this all happened." Minch confirmed telling the detective that "I walked back to the dorm" after the rehearsal, although he could no longer "even recall what I did, after I got back." Minch, however, did admit in his deposition that he did not tell Detective Cimiotti that he went to Plunkett's room when he returned to the dorm after the rehearsal.

In his deposition, Minch also admitted that "at the beginning I said no, that I hadn't [had a sexual encounter with Plunkett, but that l]ater, I told him that we had a one time thing and that was it." Minch told Detective Cimiotti that he had "pushed" Plunkett in his room, because Plunkett "was trying to make some sexual advances on [him]." Minch also said that Plunkett "stumbled backward" but that he did not "fall on the ground," and Minch then "ran out of the room." But it is not clear from the deposition whether Minch is talking about what he now recalls having done or what he now recalls having said to Detective Cimiotti.

Minch contends on appeal that his altercation with Plunkett was not on the day of the murder. In his deposition, however, he said that he cannot, either "remember when it happened" or what he told the police about when it happened. He agreed, however, that "it would have been reasonable for [Detective Cimiotti] to believe that this pushing incident occurred the day before -- sometime the day before Plunkett's body was found."

Minch's deposition testimony concerning the interview was supplemented by the MPD sign-language interpreters, Kevin Campbell and Vicki Mather,*fn2 who were present at the interview.*fn3 According to Campbell, Detective Cimiotti . . . reiterated that Mr. Minch was not under arrest, and began questioning Mr. Minch. Detective Cimiotti asked Mr. Minch about his whereabouts on Wednesday evening the night before Mr. Plunkett was found. In general Mr. Minch was saying he was not there that Wednesday; his last contact with the decedent was two weeks prior. . . . Mr. Minch denied having any sexual relations with Mr. Plunkett.

Detective Cimiotti indicated that Mr. Minch was lying, that he had gathered evidence and talked to over a hundred individuals all of whom said that Mr. Minch knew Eric Plunkett and had a sexual relationship at least once with him . . . he wanted to give Mr. Minch the opportunity to think about what he just said and Detective Cimiotti and myself and Vicki Mather left the room for a time. . . . Detective Cimiotti asked Mr. Minch if he ever had any desire or was ever attracted to another man. Mr. Minch responded, "Never."

Detective Cimiotti stated that Mr. Minch was lying, that there were people who knew that there was at least one sexual encounter between Mr. Minch and Mr. Plunkett. Mr. Minch indicated that they had only touched each other and that was all. . . . and that . . . two weeks ago [was] the last time he saw Mr. Plunkett.

Det. Cimiotti said that Mr. Minch was lying, that again people told him that there was at least one sexual encounter between Mr. Minch and Mr. Plunkett. Mr. Minch admitted that he was curious and had one sexual encounter which involved a blow job with Mr. Plunkett but afterwards Mr. Minch realized that activity was stupid and he did not like men that way. . . . Minch stated that he was the assistant stage manager for a theater production and he was at the theater the night that it happened.

Mr. Minch became very nervous, shaking, covering his face, and Detective Cimiotti offered his hand, encouraging Minch to come clean to admit he did it. Minch asked, if I tell you what happened that night, what will happen to me. Minch stated that he was in the room Wednesday evening, that Minch was looking at a poster he had given Plunkett for his birthday when Plunkett came up behind Minch and started to touch him. . . . Minch said he could not change his mind and started to leave. Plunkett grabbed him. Minch pulled away. Plunkett asked him not to leave. Plunkett followed Minch out the ...

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