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United States v. Higgins-Vogt

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 21, 2018

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Matthew Higgins-Vogt, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued October 26, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 2:17-cr-20022 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Sykes and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

          Scudder, Circuit Judge.

         Concerned that the getaway driver to his armed robbery would provide information to the police, Matthew Higgins-Vogt shot the driver multiple times in a wooded area near the Sangamon River in Decatur, Illinois. He later confessed to the murder while detained in the Macon County jail awaiting trial on the robbery charge. Higgins-Vogt appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress his statements, challenging their voluntariness. We agree with the district court that Higgins-Vogt's statements to law enforcement were entirely voluntary and therefore affirm.

         In doing so we sound our strong disapproval of the role a particular individual, who portrayed herself as a mental health counselor, was permitted to play within the Macon County jail. The individual was not a licensed mental health professional, met multiple times with Higgins-Vogt, and pledged him her confidentiality, only then to urge him to talk to the police after hearing his confession to the murder. What occurred has all the earmarks of a bait and switch of extraordinary gravity and potential consequence for Higgins-Vogt. We affirm because it is clear that Higgins-Vogt, separate and apart from his statements to and interactions with the purported counselor, affirmatively and voluntarily chose to confess to the murder.


         On April 3, 2015, Higgins-Vogt and his friend Kelton Snyder used a stolen shotgun to rob a Circle K gas station of $700. During the robbery, Paige Mars waited outside as the getaway driver. Three days later a sanitation worker discovered Mars's body, dead from multiple shotgun wounds. Later that month, state officials arrested Higgins-Vogt and charged him with armed robbery.

         Higgins-Vogt confessed to Mars's murder while he was in state custody pending trial on the robbery charge. The events surrounding the confessions are unusual. During the month or so preceding his confessions, Higgins-Vogt met multiple times with Sharon Brown, a contractor working at Macon County jail and holding herself out as a mental health counselor. This appeal requires that we examine the voluntariness of Higgins-Vogt's statements in light of his interactions with Brown-during both his so-called counseling sessions with her as well as his two subsequent interviews with law enforcement, in which Brown participated.

         During this time period, even though he had been appointed counsel following his arrest for robbery, Higgins-Vogt never met with his attorney due to a conflict of interest on the attorney's part. Accordingly, the attorney was not present at the time of the confessions Higgins-Vogt now challenges on appeal. The appeal does not entail any claim regarding the absence of counsel.

         We begin with Brown's role and position at the Macon County jail. Although employed by a private entity, Brown worked exclusively at the jail and had an office there. She provided what she characterized as "counseling" to inmates under the title of "Senior Law Enforcement Officer." While she had an undergraduate degree in psychology, Brown held no licenses in the field of mental health and received no training for her role at the Macon County jail.

         In describing her work, Brown stated that her goal was to allow inmates to develop a sense of empathy for their victims because, "somewhere along the line in order to become incarcerated, you've made a victim." She pursued this objective by meeting with inmates. And the record shows she was generally free to do so at her discretion, either at the inmates' request or hers, and without supervision from anyone at the Macon County jail.

         Shortly after entering the jail on the robbery charge, Higgins-Vogt requested to meet with Brown, who he had previously met while incarcerated as a juvenile. During this first meeting on April 16, 2015, Higgins-Vogt revealed to Brown that he murdered Paige Mars. Following the meeting, Brown created a "clinical progress note," in which she wrote that Higgins-Vogt not only told her about a person he killed, but also went into "great detail" about the murder and the murder weapon.

         Brown's note is somewhat at odds with itself, and brings to light the dual and competing role she played while interacting with inmates. On the one hand, Brown recorded that Higgins-Vogt had not been charged with the murder and that she had "encouraged client to inform his attorney of all this information and informed client she could not tell police due to confidentiality." But despite pledging this confidentiality to Higgins-Vogt, Brown told him that she "wanted police to know so [the] murder victim's family could have closure." Brown later elaborated on her desire to make sure law enforcement learned of crimes that inmates confessed to her during their "counseling" sessions: "[w]hen an inmate, whether it be Matthew [Higgins-Vogt] or anyone, starts telling me details of things and they have already talked to a cop of some sort, I encourage them to continue to talk to the cop. For the one reason is that I can't repeat what is said to me. It is not my ...

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