State v. Saldierna, __ N.C. App. __ (2017)

Reversed and Remanded

On remand from the NC Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Saldierna, __ N.C. __, 794 S.E.2d 474 (2016), the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the juvenile’s motion to suppress and vacated his convictions because the waiver of his statutory and constitutional rights during a custodial interrogation was involuntary.

Facts: The juvenile, age 16, was arrested for his alleged involvement in recent burglaries of Charlotte area homes. The arresting officers took him to a police station where a detective provided him with copies of a Juvenile Waiver of Rights Form in both English and Spanish and read the English version to him. The juvenile initialed the waiver on the English version of the form but then immediately asked, “Um, can I call my mom,” and the interrogating officer allowed the juvenile to use her cell phone. The juvenile was unable to reach his mother and returned to the booking area where the interrogation resumed. During the interrogation, he confessed. The juvenile moved to suppress his confession on the ground that it was obtained in violation of his rights under Miranda and G.S. 7B-2101, which the trial court denied.

Waiver of Rights: Because the juvenile’s waiver of rights was not made knowingly, willingly, and understandingly, the trial court erred by denying the juvenile’s motion to suppress. Emphasizing that “the totality of the circumstances must be carefully scrutinized” when evaluating waivers by juveniles, the court concluded that the trial court’s findings lacked such scrutiny. Also, the trial court’s findings that the juvenile understood the interrogating officer’s questions and statements regarding his rights were not supported by the evidence. The juvenile was 16-years-old with an 8th grade education and his primary language was Spanish. Although he could write in English, he had difficulty reading it and understanding it as spoken. The interrogation occurred in the booking area of the Justice Center in the presence of three officers, and there was no evidence the juvenile had any prior experience with law enforcement officers or understood the consequences of speaking with them. Also, the transcript of the recorded interrogation contains several “unintelligible remarks or non-responses by defendant” which do not confirm that he understood what was being asked. Despite the “express written waiver” form executed by the juvenile, the court declined to “give any weight to recitals, like the juvenile rights waiver form signed by defendant, which merely formalized constitutional requirements.” The court explained,

[t]o be valid, a waiver should be voluntary, not just on its face, i.e., the paper it is written on, but in fact. It should be unequivocal and unassailable when the subject is a juvenile. The fact that the North Carolina legislature recently raised the age that juveniles can be questioned without the presence of a parent from age fourteen to age sixteen is evidence the legislature acknowledges juveniles’ inability to fully and voluntarily waive essential constitutional and statutory rights.

Furthermore, the juvenile’s request to call his mother immediately after signing the waiver stating that he was giving up his rights “shows enough uncertainty, enough anxiety on the juvenile’s behalf, so as to call into question whether, under all the circumstances present in this case, the waiver was (unequivocally) valid.”

Motions to Suppress
Custodial Interrogation
Waiver of Rights
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