Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021
Florida v. Powell, 559 U.S. 50 (Feb. 23, 2010)

Advice by law enforcement officers that the defendant had “the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of [the law enforcement officers’] questions” and that he could invoke this right “at any time . . . during th[e] interview,” satisfied Miranda’s requirement that the defendant be informed of the right to consult with a lawyer and have the lawyer present during the interrogation. Although the warnings were not as clear as they could have been, they were sufficiently comprehensive and comprehensible when given a commonsense reading. The Court cited the standard warnings used by the FBI as “exemplary,” but declined to require that precise formulation to meet Miranda’s requirements.

State v. Johnson, 371 N.C. 870 (Dec. 21, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 795 S.E.2d 625 (2017), in this first-degree murder case the court held that the defendant’s statements to officers were voluntary. The defendant voluntarily met with detectives at the police station in connection with a robbery and murder. He was questioned in an interview room for just under five hours before being placed under arrest and warned of his rights as required by Miranda. After being advised of his rights, the defendant signed a written waiver of those rights and made inculpatory statements. He was charged with first-degree felony murder. At trial he sought to suppress his statements to officers, arguing that he was subjected to custodial interrogation before being informed of his rights as required by Miranda, and that his inculpatory statements were made in response to improper statements by detectives inducing a hope that his confession would benefit him. The trial court denied his motion and he was convicted. On appeal the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s inculpatory statements to law enforcement were given under the influence of fear or hope caused by the interrogating officers’ statements and actions and were therefore involuntarily made. The unanimous Court of Appeals panel held that the confession should have been suppressed but concluded the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt. The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred in condensing the Miranda and voluntariness inquiries into one; that the defendant did not preserve the argument that officers employed the “question first, warn later” technique to obtain his confession in violation of Miranda and Seibert; that the trial court’s conclusion that the requirements of Miranda were met is adequately supported by its findings of fact, as is its conclusion that defendant’s statements to officers were voluntarily made. The court thus modified and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to exclude the defendant’s statements to investigating officers after his arrest. The defendant had argued that because of his limited command of English, the Miranda warnings were inadequate and he did not freely and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. The court determined that there was ample evidence to support a conclusion that the defendant’s English skills sufficiently enabled him to understand the Miranda warnings that were read to him. Among other things, the court referenced the defendant’s ability to comply with an officer’s instructions and the fact that he wrote his confession in English. The court also concluded that the evidence was sufficient to permit a finding that the defendant’s command of English was sufficient to permit him to knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights, referencing, among other things, his command of conversational English and the fact that he never asked for an interpreter.

Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499 (Feb. 21, 2012)

The Sixth Circuit erroneously concluded that a prisoner is in custody within the meaning of Miranda if the prisoner is taken aside and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison. While incarcerated, Randall Fields was escorted by a corrections officer to a conference room where two sheriff’s deputies questioned him about allegations that, before he came to prison, he had engaged in sexual conduct with a 12-year-old boy. In order to get to the conference room, Fields had to go down one floor and pass through a locked door that separated two sections of the facility. Fields arrived at the conference room between 7 and 9 pm and was questioned for between five and seven hours. At the beginning of the interview, Fields was told that he was free to leave and return to his cell. Later, he was again told that he could leave whenever he wanted. The interviewing deputies were armed, but Fields remained free of handcuffs and other restraints. The door to the conference room was sometimes open and sometimes shut. About halfway through the interview, after Fields had been confronted with the allegations of abuse, he became agitated and began to yell. One of the deputies, using an expletive, told Fields to sit down and said that “if [he] didn’t want to cooperate, [he] could leave.” Fields eventually confessed to engaging in sex acts with the boy. Fields claimed that he said several times during the interview that he no longer wanted to talk to the deputies, but he did not ask to go back to his cell before the interview ended. When he was eventually ready to leave, he had to wait an additional 20 minutes or so because an officer had to be called to escort him back to his cell, and he did not return to his cell until well after when he generally went to bed. At no time was Fields given Miranda warnings or advised that he did not have to speak with the deputies. Fields was charged with criminal sexual conduct. Fields unsuccessfully moved to suppress his confession and the jury convicted him of criminal sexual conduct. After an unsuccessful direct appeal, Fields filed for federal habeas relief. The federal district court granted relief and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the interview was a custodial interrogation because isolation from the general prison population combined with questioning about conduct occurring outside the prison makes any such interrogation custodial per se. Reversing, the Court stated: “it is abundantly clear that our precedents do not clearly establish the categorical rule on which the Court of Appeals relied, i.e., that the questioning of a prisoner is always custodial when the prisoner is removed from the general prison population and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison.” “On the contrary,” the Court stated, “we have repeatedly declined to adopt any categorical rule with respect to whether the questioning of a prison inmate is custodial.” The Court went on to hold that based on the facts presented, Fields was not in custody for purpose of Miranda.

In this North Carolina case, the Court held, in a five-to-four decision, that the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis. J.D.B. was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade middle school student when he was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer, brought to a conference room, and questioned by police. This was the second time that police questioned J.D.B. in a week. Five days earlier, two home break-ins occurred, and items were stolen. Police stopped and questioned J.D.B. after he was seen behind a residence in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred. That same day, police spoke to J.D.B.’s grandmother—his legal guardian—and his aunt. Police later learned that a digital camera matching the description of one of the stolen items had been found at J.D.B.’s school and in his possession. Investigator DiCostanzo went to the school to question J.D.B. A uniformed school resource officer removed J.D.B. from his classroom and escorted him to a conference room, where J.D.B. was met by DiCostanzo, the assistant principal, and an administrative intern. The door to the conference room was closed. With the two police officers and the two administrators present, J.D.B. was questioned for 30-45 minutes. Before the questioning began, J.D.B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave. J.D.B. eventually confessed to the break-ins. Juvenile petitions were filed against J.D.B. and at trial, J.D.B.’s lawyer moved to suppress his statements, arguing that J.D.B. had been subjected to a custodial police interrogation without Miranda warnings. The trial court denied the motion and J.D.B. was adjudicated delinquent. The N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed. The N.C. Supreme Court held that J.D.B. was not in custody, declining to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age of the individual questioned. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Miranda custody analysis includes consideration of a juvenile suspect’s age and concluding, in part: “[A] reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go. We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.” Slip Op. at 8. The Court distinguished a child’s age “from other personal characteristics that, even when known to police, have no objectively discernible relationship to a reasonable person’s understanding of his freedom of action.” Slip Op. at 11. It held: “[S]o long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.” Slip Op. at 14. However, the Court cautioned: “This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case.” Id. The Court remanded for the North Carolina courts to determine whether J.D.B. was in custody when the police interrogated him, “this time taking account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.’s age.” Slip Op. at 18.

State v. Hammonds, 370 N.C. 158 (Sept. 29, 2017)

Because the defendant was in custody while confined under a civil commitment order, the failure of the police to advise him of his Miranda rights rendered inadmissible his incriminating statements made during the interrogation. On December 10, 2012, a Stephanie Gaddy was robbed. On December 11, 2012, after the defendant was taken to a hospital emergency room following an intentional overdose, he was confined pursuant to an involuntary commitment order upon a finding by a magistrate that he was “mentally ill and dangerous to self or others.” Officers identified the defendant as a suspect in the robbery and learned he was confined to the hospital under the involuntary commitment order. On December 12 they questioned him without informing him of his Miranda rights. The defendant provided incriminating statements. At trial he unsuccessfully moved to suppress the statements made during the December 12th interview. The defendant was convicted and he appealed. Before the Court of Appeals, the majority determined that the trial court properly found that the defendant was not in custody at the time of the interview and that the trial court’s findings of fact supported its conclusion of law that the confession was voluntary. A dissenting judge concluded that the trial court’s findings of fact were insufficient. The defendant filed an appeal of right with the Supreme Court, which vacated the opinion of the Court of Appeals and instructed and the trial court to hold a new hearing on the suppression motion. After taking additional evidence the trial court again denied the motion. When the case came back before the Supreme Court, it reversed. The court noted, in part, that the defendant’s freedom of movement was already severely restricted by the civil commitment order. However the officers failed to inform him that he was free to terminate the questioning and, more importantly, communicated to him that they would leave only after he spoke to them about the robbery. Specifically, they told him that “as soon as he talked, they could leave.” The court found that “these statements, made to a suspect whose freedom is already severely restricted because of an involuntary commitment, would lead a reasonable person in this position to believe that he was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation without first answering his interrogators’ questions about his suspected criminal activity.” (quotations omitted). 

State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

A capital defendant was not in custody when he admitted that he stabbed the victim. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the defendant is an adult with prior criminal justice system experience; the officer who first approached the defendant told him that he was being detained until detectives arrived but that he was not under arrest; when the detectives arrived and told him that he was not under arrest, the defendant voluntarily agreed to go to the police station; the defendant was never restrained and was left alone in the interview room with the door unlocked and no guard; he was given several bathroom breaks and offered food and drink; the defendant was cooperative; the detectives did not raise their voices, use threats, or make promises; the defendant was never misled, deceived, or confronted with false evidence; once the defendant admitted his involvement in the killing, the interview ended and he was given his Miranda rights. Although the first officer told the defendant that he was “detained,” he also told the defendant he was not under arrest. Any custody associated with the detention ended when the defendant voluntarily accompanied detectives, who confirmed that he was not under arrest. The defendant’s inability to leave the interview room without supervision or escort did not suggest custody; the defendant was in a non-public area of the station and prevention of unsupervised roaming in such a space would not cause a reasonable person to think that a formal arrest had occurred.

Considering the circumstances under which Miranda warnings are required when a member of the Armed Forces is questioned by a superior officer about involvement in the commission of a crime, the court concluded that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements to the officer lacked findings of fact on key issues and that the trial court did not fully apply the correct legal standard; it held however that the trial court properly denied a motion to suppress statements in a jail letter. The defendant’s motion to suppress pertained, in relevant part, to two items of inculpatory evidence: an oral statement made to Sgt. Schlegelmilch, a non-commissioned first sergeant in the third brigade of the United States Army, on 18 August 2011; and written statements contained in a letter sent by the defendant from jail to Sgt. Schlegelmilch.

(1) As to the oral statement made to Schlegelmilch, the court vacated and remanded, finding that the trial court did not make factual findings on several issues integral to the question of whether a Miranda violation had occurred and it failed to fully apply the correct legal standard applicable to the issue. The defendant argued that because he was interrogated by a superior officer who had the power to arrest him, a custodial interrogation occurred. The State countered that no custodial arrest can occur unless the soldier is questioned by a commissioned officer with independent arrest authority. Citing federal law, the court noted that a commanding officer may delegate arrest authority to a non-commissioned officer. When this has occurred, the non-commissioned officer’s interrogation of the soldier can trigger the need for Miranda warnings. Here, it is undisputed that Schlegelmilch was a non-commissioned officer. Therefore to resolve the issue of whether the defendant was entitled to Miranda warnings, it is necessary to determine whether she had previously been delegated authority to arrest the defendant by a commanding officer as authorized by federal law. However, the trial court did not make any findings of fact as to whether such a delegation occurred. Additionally, the trial court’s order suggests that it failed to understand the potential applicability of Miranda if Schlegelmilch had, in fact, been delegated authority to arrest and then proceeded to question him under circumstances amounting to custodial interrogation. Nor, the court continued, did the trial court make findings about the specific degree to which the defendant’s liberty had been restricted when he made the statements. The court thus vacated the portion of the trial court’s suppression order relating to the statements and remanded for additional findings of fact and conclusions of law, along with a new hearing if necessary.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the contents of the jail letter. While the defendant was being held in jail after his arrest, the decision was made to initiate military discharge proceedings against him. When the defendant was delivered a notice of separation, he signed a memorandum indicating that he would not contest the proceedings. Thereafter and while in jail, he exchanged letters with Schlegelmilch. In the reply letter at issue, the defendant gave an account of the victim’s death, including inculpatory statements. The defendant argued that the letter should have been suppressed because it was a response to a letter from Schlegelmilch asking the defendant to explain how the victim had died and thus constituted a custodial interrogation. The court rejected this argument, finding the circumstances under which the letter was written did not implicate Miranda. First, it noted the defendant’s failure to cite any cases supporting the proposition that questioning conducted through an exchange of letters can constitute a custodial interrogation for purposes of Miranda, nor did the court’s own research reveal any legal authority for that proposition. Furthermore, the court noted, when the defendant responded to Schlegelmilch’s letter, he was in the midst of being discharged from the military, was not contesting those proceedings, and thus the circumstances “simply do not amount to the type of coercive environment that Miranda was intended to address.” The court thus affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress with respect to the letter.

In this impaired driving case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress self-incriminating statements made without Miranda warnings, finding that the defendant was not in custody at the time. The standard for determining whether an individual is in custody for purposes of Miranda is, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether there was a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement to a degree associated with a formal arrest. In this case, the defendant argued that when the detective retained his drivers license he was seized, not free to leave, and thus entitled to Miranda warnings. The court found that the defendant had erroneously conflated the Miranda custody standard with the standard for a seizure. Noting that the defendant was not under formal arrest at the time he was questioned, the court determined that under the totality of the circumstances the defendant’s movement was not restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest. The court noted that the inquiry is an objective one, not a subjective one. Here, the defendant was standing outside of his own vehicle while speaking with the detective. He was not told he was under arrest or handcuffed, and other than his license being retained, his movement was not stopped or limited further. No mention of any possible suspicion of the defendant being involved in criminal activity, impaired driving or otherwise, had yet been made. A reasonable person in these circumstances would not have believed that he was under arrest at the time.

In this child sexual assault case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confession was obtained in violation of Miranda. During an interview at the sheriff’s department, the defendant admitted that he had sex with the victim. The transcript and videotape of the interview was admitted at trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a custodial interrogation occurred. The defendant contacted a detective investigating the case and voluntarily traveled to the sheriff’s department. After the detective invited the defendant to speak with her, the defendant followed her to an interview room. The defendant was not handcuffed or restrained and the interview room door and hallway doors were unlocked. The defendant neither asked to leave nor expressed any reservations about speaking with the detective. A reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have understood this to be a custodial interrogation.

Although the defendant was in handcuffs at the time of the questioning, he was not, based on the totality of the circumstances, “in custody” for purposes of Miranda. While the defendant was visiting his cousin’s house, a parole officer arrived to search of the cousin’s home. The parole officer recognized the defendant as a probationer and the officer advised him that he was also subject to a warrantless search because of his probation status. The officer put the defendant in handcuffs “for officer safety” and seated the two men on the front porch while officers conducted a search. During the search, the parole officer found a jacket with what appeared to be crack cocaine inside a pocket. The officer asked the defendant and his cousin to identify the owner of the jacket. The defendant claimed the jacket and was charged with a drug offense. The court held: “Based on the totality of circumstances, we conclude that a reasonable person in Defendant’s situation, though in handcuffs would not believe his restraint rose to the level of the restraint associated with a formal arrest.” The court noted that the regular conditions of probation include the requirement that a probation submit to warrantless searches. Also, the defendant was informed that he would be placed in handcuffs for officer safety and he was never told that his detention was anything other than temporary. Further, the court reasoned, “as a probationer subject to random searches as a condition of probation, Defendant would objectively understand the purpose of the restraints and the fact that the period of restraint was for a temporary duration.”

(1) The defendant was not in custody when he gave statements to officers at the hospital. The victim was killed in a robbery perpetrated by the defendant and his accomplice. The defendant was shot during the incident and brought to the hospital. He sought to suppress statements made to police officers at the hospital, arguing that they were elicited during a custodial interrogation for which he had not been given his Miranda warnings. There was no evidence that the defendant knew a guard was present when the interview was conducted; the defendant was interrogated in an open area of the ICU where other patients, nurses, and doctors were situated and he had no legitimate reason to believe that he was in police custody; none of the officers who were guarding him spoke with him about the case prior to the interview; the detectives who did so wore plain clothes; and there was no evidence that the defendant’s movements were restricted by anything other than the injuries he had sustained and the medical equipment connected to him. Additionally, based on the evidence, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the interrogation was custodial because he was under the influence of pain and other medication that could have affected his comprehension. It also rejected the defendant’s argument that he was in custody because the detectives arrived at the hospital with the intention of arresting him. Although they may have had this intention, it was not made known to the defendant and thus has no bearing on whether the interview was custodial. (2) Where there was no evidence that the defendant’s first statement, given in the hospital, was coerced, there was no support for his contention that his second statement was tainted by the first. (3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his inculpatory statements resulted from substantial violations of Chapter 15A requiring suppression.

(1) Because the defendant was handcuffed and placed under arrest, the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant was not in custody when he made a statement to the officer. (2) The defendant was subject to an interrogation when, after handcuffing the defendant, placing him under arrest, and conducting a pat down, the officer asked, “Do you have anything else on you?” The defendant, who was in front of a doorway to a motel room, stated, “I have weed in the room.” (3) The court rejected the State’s argument that the public safety exception established in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984) applied. The court found the facts of the case at hand “noticeably distinguishable” from those in Quarles, noting that the defendant was not suspected of carrying a gun or other weapon; rather, he was sitting on the ground in handcuffs and already had been patted down.

State v. Davis, 237 N.C. App. 22 (Oct. 21, 2014)

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that she was in custody within the meaning of Miranda during an interview at the police station about her missing child. The trial court properly used an objective test to determine whether the interview was custodial. Furthermore competent evidence supported the trial court’s findings of fact that the defendant was not threatened or restrained; she voluntarily went to the station; she was allowed to leave at the end of the interviews; the interview room door was closed but unlocked; the defendant was allowed to take multiple bathroom and cigarette breaks and was given food and drink; and defendant was offered the opportunity to leave the fourth interview but refused.

A thirteen-year-old juvenile was not in custody within the meaning of G.S. 7B-2101 or Miranda during a roadside questioning by an officer. Responding to a report of a vehicle accident, the officer saw the wrecked vehicle, which had crashed into a utility pole, and three people walking from the scene. When the officer questioned all three, the juvenile admitted that he had been driving the wrecked vehicle. Noting that under J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 131 S. Ct. 2394, 2406 (2011), a reviewing court must take into account a juvenile’s age if it was known to the officer or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, the court nevertheless concluded that the juvenile was not in custody.

Citing Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442 (1984), the court held that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda during a traffic stop.

The juvenile defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. After the defendant had been identified as a possible suspect in several breaking or entering cases, two detectives dressed in plain clothes and driving an unmarked vehicle went to the defendant’s home and asked to speak with him. Because the defendant had friends visiting his home, the detectives asked the defendant to ride in their car with them. The detectives told the defendant he was free to leave at any time, and they did not touch him. The defendant sat in the front seat of the vehicle while it was driven approximately 2 miles from his home. When the vehicle stopped, one of the detectives showed the defendant reports of the break-ins. The detectives told the defendant that if he was cooperative, they would not arrest him that day. The defendant admitted to committing the break-ins. The juvenile was 17 years and 10 months old at the time. Considering the totality of the circumstances—including the defendant’s age—the court concluded that the defendant was not in custody. The court rejected the argument that J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (June 6, 2011), required a different conclusion. 

The defendant’s response to the officer’s questioning while on the ground and being restrained with handcuffs should have been suppressed because the defendant had not been given Miranda warnings. The officer’s questioning constituted an interrogation and a reasonable person in the defendant's position, having been forced to the ground by an officer with a taser drawn and in the process of being handcuffed, would have felt his freedom of movement had been restrained to a degree associated with formal arrest. Thus, there was a custodial interrogation. The court went on, however, to find that the defendant was not prejudiced by the trial court’s failure to suppress the statements. A concurring judge agreed that the defendant was not entitled to a new trial but believed that the defendant was not in custody and thus not subjected to a custodial interrogation.

The defendant was not in custody when he made a statement to detectives. The defendant rode with the detectives to the police station voluntarily, without being frisked or handcuffed. He was told at least three times — once in the car, once while entering the police station, and once at the beginning of the interview — that he was not in custody and that he was free to leave at any time. He was not restrained during the interview and was left unattended in the unlocked interview room before the interview began. The defendant was not coerced or threatened. To the contrary, he was repeatedly asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink and was given food and a soda when he asked for it.

The defendant was not in custody when he confessed to three homicides. Officers approached the defendant as he was walking on the road, confirmed his identity and that he was okay, told him that three people had been injured at his residence, and asked him if he knew anything about the situation. After the defendant stated that he did not know about it, an officer conducted a pat down of the defendant. The defendant’s clothes were damp and his hands were shaking. An officer told the defendant that the officer would like to talk to him about what happened and asked if the defendant would come to the fire department, which was being used as an investigation command post. The officer did not handcuff the defendant and told him that he was not under arrest. The defendant agreed to go with the officers, riding in the front passenger seat of the police car. The officers entered a code to access the fire department and the defendant followed them to a classroom where he sat at one table while two officers sat across from him at a different table. Officers asked the defendant if he wanted anything to eat or drink or to use the restroom and informed him that he was not under arrest. An officer noticed cuts on the defendant’s hands and when asked about them, the defendant stated that he did not know how he got them. Although the officer decided that she would not allow the defendant to leave, she did not tell the defendant that; rather, she said that forensic evidence would likely lead to apprehension of the perpetrator. When she asked the defendant if there was anything else that he wanted to tell her, he confessed to the murders. Due to a concern for public safety, the officer asked where the murder weapon was located and the defendant told her where it was. The officer then left the room to inform others about the confession while another officer remained with the defendant. The defendant then was arrested and given Miranda warnings. He was not handcuffed and he remained seated at the same table. He waived his rights and restated his confession. The court concluded that the defendant was not in custody when he gave his initial confession, noting that he was twice told that he was not under arrest; he voluntarily went to the fire department; he was never handcuffed; he rode in the front of the vehicle; officers asked him if he needed food, water, or use of the restroom; the defendant was never misled or deceived; the defendant was not questioned for a long period of time; and the officers kept their distance during the interview and did not use physical intimidation. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the pat-down and the officer’s subjective intent to detain him created a custodial situation. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the interrogation was an impermissible two-stage interrogation under Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004), concluding that the case was distinguishable from Seibert because the defendant was not in custody when he made his first confession.

State v. Clark, 211 N.C. App. 60 (Apr. 19, 2011)

A reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have believed that he or she was under arrest or restrained in such a way as to necessitate Miranda warnings. Key factors in the Miranda custody determination include: whether a suspect is told he or she is free to leave, is handcuffed, or is in the presence of uniformed officers and the nature of any security around the suspect. There was no evidence that officers ever explicitly told the defendant that he was being detained. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that because he was moved to a patrol car and instructed to remain there when he came in contact with the victim’s father and that he was told to “come back and stay” when he attempted to talk to his girlfriend, the victim’s sister, this was tantamount to a formal arrest. The court concluded that the officers’ actions were nothing more than an attempt to control the scene and prevent emotional encounters between a suspect and members of the victim’s family. Moreover, even if the defendant was detained at the scene, his statements are untainted given that the detective expressly told him that he was not under arrest, the defendant repeatedly asked to speak with the detective, and the defendant voluntarily accompanied the detective to the sheriff’s department.

The proper standard for determining whether a person was in custody for purposes of Miranda is not whether one would feel free to leave but whether there was indicia of formal arrest. On the facts presented, there was no indicia of arrest. 

The defendant was not in custody while being treated at a hospital. Case law suggests that the following factors should be considered when determining whether questioning in a hospital constitutes a custodial interrogation: whether the defendant was free to go; whether the defendant was coherent in thought and speech, and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and whether officers intended to arrest the defendant. Additionally, courts have distinguished between questioning that is accusatory and that which is investigatory. On the facts presented, the defendant was not in custody. As to separate statements made by the defendant at the police station, the court held that although interrogation must cease once the accused invokes the right to counsel and may not be resumed without an attorney present, an exception exists where, as here, the defendant initiates further communication.

Considering the circumstances under which Miranda warnings are required when a member of the Armed Forces is questioned by a superior officer about involvement in the commission of a crime, the court concluded that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements to the officer lacked findings of fact on key issues and that the trial court did not fully apply the correct legal standard; it held however that the trial court properly denied a motion to suppress statements in a jail letter. The defendant’s motion to suppress pertained, in relevant part, to two items of inculpatory evidence: an oral statement made to Sgt. Schlegelmilch, a non-commissioned first sergeant in the third brigade of the United States Army, on 18 August 2011; and written statements contained in a letter sent by the defendant from jail to Sgt. Schlegelmilch.

(1) As to the oral statement made to Schlegelmilch, the court vacated and remanded, finding that the trial court did not make factual findings on several issues integral to the question of whether a Miranda violation had occurred and it failed to fully apply the correct legal standard applicable to the issue. The defendant argued that because he was interrogated by a superior officer who had the power to arrest him, a custodial interrogation occurred. The State countered that no custodial arrest can occur unless the soldier is questioned by a commissioned officer with independent arrest authority. Citing federal law, the court noted that a commanding officer may delegate arrest authority to a non-commissioned officer. When this has occurred, the non-commissioned officer’s interrogation of the soldier can trigger the need for Miranda warnings. Here, it is undisputed that Schlegelmilch was a non-commissioned officer. Therefore to resolve the issue of whether the defendant was entitled to Miranda warnings, it is necessary to determine whether she had previously been delegated authority to arrest the defendant by a commanding officer as authorized by federal law. However, the trial court did not make any findings of fact as to whether such a delegation occurred. Additionally, the trial court’s order suggests that it failed to understand the potential applicability of Miranda if Schlegelmilch had, in fact, been delegated authority to arrest and then proceeded to question him under circumstances amounting to custodial interrogation. Nor, the court continued, did the trial court make findings about the specific degree to which the defendant’s liberty had been restricted when he made the statements. The court thus vacated the portion of the trial court’s suppression order relating to the statements and remanded for additional findings of fact and conclusions of law, along with a new hearing if necessary.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the contents of the jail letter. While the defendant was being held in jail after his arrest, the decision was made to initiate military discharge proceedings against him. When the defendant was delivered a notice of separation, he signed a memorandum indicating that he would not contest the proceedings. Thereafter and while in jail, he exchanged letters with Schlegelmilch. In the reply letter at issue, the defendant gave an account of the victim’s death, including inculpatory statements. The defendant argued that the letter should have been suppressed because it was a response to a letter from Schlegelmilch asking the defendant to explain how the victim had died and thus constituted a custodial interrogation. The court rejected this argument, finding the circumstances under which the letter was written did not implicate Miranda. First, it noted the defendant’s failure to cite any cases supporting the proposition that questioning conducted through an exchange of letters can constitute a custodial interrogation for purposes of Miranda, nor did the court’s own research reveal any legal authority for that proposition. Furthermore, the court noted, when the defendant responded to Schlegelmilch’s letter, he was in the midst of being discharged from the military, was not contesting those proceedings, and thus the circumstances “simply do not amount to the type of coercive environment that Miranda was intended to address.” The court thus affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress with respect to the letter.

The court rejected the defendant’s claim that counsel was ineffective by failing to object to the admission of his statement to an officer that the cocaine in question belonged to him and not a passenger in the vehicle; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the statements were obtained in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights because the officer failed to advise him of his Miranda rights before reading the warrants to him and the passenger in each other’s presence. After the two were arrested and taken to the county detention center the officer read the arrest warrants to the defendant and the passenger in each other’s presence. When the officer finished reading the charges, the defendant told the officer that the cocaine belonged to him. The court concluded that the defendant’s admission is properly classified as a spontaneous statement, not the product of an interrogation.

(1) Because the defendant was handcuffed and placed under arrest, the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant was not in custody when he made a statement to the officer. (2) The defendant was subject to an interrogation when, after handcuffing the defendant, placing him under arrest, and conducting a pat down, the officer asked, “Do you have anything else on you?” The defendant, who was in front of a doorway to a motel room, stated, “I have weed in the room.” (3) The court rejected the State’s argument that the public safety exception established in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984) applied. The court found the facts of the case at hand “noticeably distinguishable” from those in Quarles, noting that the defendant was not suspected of carrying a gun or other weapon; rather, he was sitting on the ground in handcuffs and already had been patted down.

The defendant’s statements, made during the stop were voluntary and not the result of any custodial interrogation. None of the officers asked or said anything to the defendant to elicit the statement in question. Rather, the defendant volunteered the statement in response to one officer informing another that suspected heroin and had been recovered from a person in the vehicle.

The defendant’s statements, made while a police officer who responded to a domestic violence scene questioned the defendant’s girlfriend, were spontaneous and in not response to interrogation. The State conceded that the defendant was in custody at the time. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that asking his girlfriend what happened in front of him was a coercive technique designed to elicit an incriminating statement. Conceding that the “case is a close one,” the court concluded that the officer’s question to the girlfriend did not constitute the functional equivalent of questioning because the officer’s question did not call for a response from the defendant and therefore was not reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from him.

In Re L.I., 205 N.C. App. 155 (July 6, 2010)

A juvenile’s statement, made while in custody, was the product interrogation and not a voluntary, spontaneous statement. The trial court thus erred by denying the juvenile’s motion to suppress the statement, since the juvenile had not advised her of her rights under Miranda and G.S. 7B-2101(a). The juvenile was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by an officer. When the officer ordered the juvenile out of the vehicle, he asked, “[Where is] the marijuana I know you have[?]” After handcuffing and placing juvenile in the back of the patrol car, the officer told her that he was going to "take her downtown" and that "if [she] t[ook] drugs into the jail it[] [would be] an additional charge." The juvenile later told the officer that she had marijuana and that it was in her coat pocket. The court went on to hold that the trial judge did not err by admitting the seized marijuana. Rejecting the juvenile’s argument that the contraband must be excluded as fruit of the poisonous tree, the court concluded that because there was no coercion, the exclusionary rule does not preclude the admission of physical evidence obtained as a result of a Miranda violation. Although the juvenile was in custody at the time of her statement and her Miranda rights were violated, the court found no coercion, noting that there was no evidence that the juvenile was deceived, held incommunicado, threatened or intimidated, promised anything, or interrogated for an unreasonable period of time; nor was there evidence that the juvenile was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or that her mental condition was such that she was vulnerable to manipulation.

In Re D.L.D., 203 N.C. App. 434 (Apr. 20, 2010)

The trial judge properly determined that a juvenile’s statements, made after an officer’s search of his person revealed cash, were admissible. The juvenile’s stated that the cash was not from selling drugs and that it was his mother’s rent money. The statement was unsolicited and spontaneous.

Defendant’s mother was not acting as an agent of the police when, at the request of officers, she asked her son to tell the truth about his involvement in the crime. This occurred in a room at the police station, with officers present.

The defendant was subject to interrogation within the meaning of Miranda when he made incriminating statements to a detective. The detective should have known that his conduct was likely to elicit an incriminating response when, after telling the defendant that their conversation would not be on the record, the detective turned discussion to the defendant’s cooperation with the investigation. Also, the detective knew that the defendant was particularly susceptible to an appeal to the defendant’s relationship with the detective, based on prior dealings with the defendant, and that the defendant was still under the effects of an attempted overdose on prescription medication and alcohol. Additionally the defendant testified that he knew that the detective was trying to get him to talk.

Officers did not interrogate the defendant within the meaning of Miranda. An officer asked the defendant to explain why he was hanging out of a window of a house that officers had approached on an informant’s tip that she bought marijuana there. The defendant responded, “Man, I’ve got some weed.” When the officer asked if that was the only reason for the defendant’s behavior, the defendant made further incriminating statements. Additional statements made by the defendant were unsolicited.

State v. Herrera, 195 N.C. App. 181 (Feb. 3, 2009)

The police did not impermissibly interrogate the defendant after he requested a lawyer by offering to allow him to speak with his grandmother by speaker phone. Once the defendant stated that he wished to have a lawyer, all interrogation ceased. However, before leaving for the magistrate’s office, an interpreter who had been working with the police, informed an officer that he had promised to let the defendant’s grandmother know when the defendant was in custody. The officer allowed the interpreter to use a speaker phone to call the grandmother to so inform the grandmother. When the interpreter asked the defendant if he wanted to speak with his grandmother, the defendant responded affirmatively. While on the phone with his grandmother, the defendant admitted that he did the acts charged. The grandmother urged him to tell the police everything. Thereafter, the defendant indicated that he wanted to make a statement, was given Miranda warnings, waived his rights, and made a statement confessing to the crime.

The defendant was arrested in connection with a shooting that left one victim dead and another injured. At the start of their interrogation of the defendant, officers presented him with a written notification of his constitutional rights, which contained Miranda warnings. During the three-hour interrogation, the defendant never said that he wanted to remain silent, did not want to talk with the police, or he wanted a lawyer. Although he was largely silent, he gave a limited number of verbal answers, such as “yeah,” “no,” and “I don’t know,” and on occasion he responded by nodding his head. After two hours and forty-five minutes, the defendant was asked whether he believed in God and whether he prayed to God. When he answered in the affirmative, he was asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” The defendant answered “yes,” and the interrogation ended shortly thereafter. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that his answers to the officers’ questions were inadmissible because he had invoked his privilege to remain silent by not saying anything for a sufficient period of time such that the interrogation should have ceased before he made his inculpatory statements. Noting that in order to invoke the Miranda right to counsel, a defendant must do so unambiguously, the Court determined that there is no reason to adopt a different standard for determining when an accused has invoked the Miranda right to remain silent. It held that in the case before it, the defendant’s silence did not constitute an invocation of the right to remain silent. The Court went on to hold that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent when he answered the officers’ questions. The Court clarified that a waiver may be implied through the defendant’s silence, coupled with an understanding of rights, and a course of conduct indicating waiver. In this case, the Court concluded that there was no basis to find that the defendant did not understand his rights, his answer to the question about praying to God for forgiveness for the shooting was a course of conduct indicating waiver, and there was no evidence that his statement was coerced. Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police were not allowed to question him until they first obtained a waiver as inconsistent with the rule that a waiver can be inferred from the actions and words of the person interrogated.

State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that by telling officers that he did not want to snitch on anyone and declining to reveal the name of his accomplice, the defendant invoked his right to remain silent requiring that all interrogation cease.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating statements made to police during a custodial interview. The defendant asserted that the statements were made after he invoked his right to counsel. Before the custodial interview, the defendant was advised of his Miranda rights, initialed and signed the Miranda rights form, waived his Miranda rights, and spoke with law enforcement. The defendant asked at one point “Can I consult with a lawyer, I mean, or anything?” Finding that the trial court did not err by concluding that this question was not an unambiguous assertion of the right to counsel, the court noted:

Merely one-tenth of a second elapsed between the time that defendant asked, “[c]an I consult with a lawyer, I mean, or anything?” and then stated, “I mean I – I – I did it. I’m not laughing man, I want to cry because its f[*]cked up to be put on the spot like this.” The officers then immediately reminded defendant of his Miranda rights, that they had just read him those rights, that defendant “ha[d] the right to have [his attorney] here,” and that the officers “[could] never make that choice for [him] one way or another.” After police attempted to clarify whether defendant’s question was an affirmative assertion of his Miranda rights, defendant declined to unambiguously assert that right, continued communications, and never again asked about counsel for the rest of the interview.

The court concluded that although the defendant explicitly asked if he could consult with a lawyer, considering the totality of the circumstances his statement was ambiguous or equivocal, such that the officers were not required to cease questioning. He did not pause between the time he asked for counsel and gave his initial confession, the officers immediately reminded him of his Miranda rights to clarify if he was indeed asserting his right to counsel, and the defendant declined the offered opportunity to unambiguously assert that right but instead continued communicating with the officers. The court went on to hold that even if his question could be objectively construed as an unambiguous invocation of his Miranda rights it was immediately waived when he initiated further communication.

On remand from the NC Supreme Court the court held, in this murder case, that the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights were not violated. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to counsel during a custodial interrogation. The court disagreed, holding that the defendant never invoked his right to counsel. It summarized the relevant facts as follows:

[D]uring the police interview, after defendant asked to speak to his grandmother, Detective Morse called defendant’s grandmother from his phone and then handed his phone to defendant. While on the phone, defendant told his grandmother that he called her to “let [her] know that [he] was alright.” From defendant’s responses on the phone, it appears that his grandmother asked him if the police had informed him of his right to speak to an attorney. Defendant responded, “An attorney? No, not yet. They didn’t give me a chance yet.” Defendant then responds, “Alright,” as if he is listening to his grandmother’s advice. Defendant then looked up at Detective Morse and asked, “Can I speak to an attorney?” Detective Morse responded: “You can call one, absolutely.” Defendant then relayed Detective Morse’s answer to his grandmother: “Yeah, they said I could call one.” Defendant then told his grandmother that the police had not yet made any charges against him, listened to his grandmother for several more seconds, and then hung up the phone.

After the defendant refused to sign a Miranda waiver form, explaining that his grandmother told him not to sign anything, Morse asked, “Are you willing to talk to me today?” The defendant responded: “I will. But [my grandmother] said—um—that I need an attorney or a lawyer present.” Morse responded: “Okay. Well you’re nineteen. You’re an adult. Um—that’s really your decision whether or not you want to talk to me and kind-of clear your name or—” The defendant then interrupted: “But I didn’t do anything, so I’m willing to talk to you.” The defendant then orally waived his Miranda rights. The defendant’s question, “Can I speak to an attorney?”, made during his phone conversation with his grandmother “is ambiguous whether defendant was conveying his own desire to receive the assistance of counsel or whether he was merely relaying a question from his grandmother.” The defendant’s later statement —“But [my grandmother] said—um—that I need an attorney or a lawyer present”—“is also not an invocation since it does not unambiguously convey defendant’s desire to receive the assistance of counsel.” (quotation omitted). The court went on to note: “A few minutes later, after Detective Morse advised defendant of his Miranda rights, he properly clarified that the decision to invoke the right to counsel was defendant’s decision, not his grandmother’s.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent was violated where there was ample evidence to support the trial court’s finding that the defendant did not invoke that right. The defendant had argued that his refusal to talk to police about the crimes, other than to deny his involvement, was an invocation of the right to remain silent. The court found that the defendant’s “continued assertions of his innocence cannot be considered unambiguous invocations of his right to remain silent.”

Citing Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010), the court held that the defendant’s silence or refusal to answer the officers’ questions was not an invocation of the right to remain silent.

State v. Knight, 369 N.C. 640 (June 9, 2017)

Applying Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010),the court held that the defendant understood his Miranda rights and through a course of conduct indicating waiver, provided a knowing and voluntary waiver of those rights. During the interrogation, the defendant never said that he wanted to remain silent, did not want to talk with the police, or that he wanted an attorney. In fact, the 40-minute video of the interrogation shows that the defendant was willing to speak with the detective. After being read his rights, the defendant indicated that he wanted to tell his side of the story and he talked at length during the interrogation, often interrupting the detective, and responding without hesitation to the detective’s questions. The video also shows that the defendant emphatically denied any wrongdoing; provided a detailed account of the evening’s events; and seemed to try to talk his way out of custody. The court found this last point “worth emphasizing because it appears that, when faced with a choice between invoking his rights or trying to convince the police that he was innocent, defendant chose to do the latter.” The court concluded that the defendant’s course of conduct indicating waiver was much more pronounced than that of the defendant in Berghuis, who largely remained silent during a lengthy interrogation and who gave very limited responses when he did speak and nonetheless was found to have implicitly waived his rights. The court went on to conclude that, as in Berghuis, there was no evidence that the defendant’s statements were involuntary. The defendant was not threatened in any way and the detective did not make any promises to get the defendant to talk. The interrogation was conducted in a standard room and lasted less than 40 minutes. The only factor that could even arguably constitute coercion was the fact that the defendant’s arm was handcuffed to a bar on the wall in the interrogation room. The court noted however that his chair had an armrest, his arm had an ample range of motion, and he did not appear to be in discomfort during the interrogation. Thus, the court concluded, the defendant voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. The court went on to reject the defendant’s argument that he did not understand his rights, again citing Berghuis. Here, the detective read all of the rights aloud, speaking clearly. The video shows that the defendant appeared to be listening and paying attention and that he speaks English fluently. The court noted that the defendant was mature and experienced enough to understand his rights, in part because of his prior experience with the criminal justice system. The trial court found the defendant gave no indication of cognitive issues, nor was there anything else that could have impaired his understanding of his rights. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State must prove that the defendant explicitly stated that he understood his rights. Rather, it concluded that the State simply must prove, under the totality of the circumstances, that the defendant in fact understand them. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant had expressly denied that he understood his rights, such a bare statement, without more, would not be enough to outweigh other evidence suggesting that he in fact understand them. The court summarized:

[T]he fact that a defendant affirmatively denies that he understands his rights cannot, on its own, lead to suppression. Again, while an express written or oral statement of waiver of Miranda rights is usually strong proof of the validity of that waiver, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish waiver. Likewise, a defendant’s affirmative acknowledgement that he understands his Miranda rights is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish that a defendant in fact understood them, because the test for a defendant’s understanding looks to the totality of the circumstances. Just because a defendant says that he understands his rights, after all, does not mean that he actually understands them. By the same token, just because a defendant claims not to understand his rights does not necessarily mean that he does not actually understand them. In either situation, merely stating something cannot, in and of itself, establish that the thing stated is true. That is exactly why a trial court must analyze the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a defendant in fact understood his rights. As a result, even if defendant here had denied that he understood his rights—and again, in context it appears that he did not—that would not change our conclusion in this case. (citation omitted).

It continued, noting that any suggestion in the Court of Appeals’ opinion suggesting that a defendant must make some sort of affirmative verbal response or affirmative gesture to acknowledge that he has understood his Miranda rights for his waiver to be valid “is explicitly disavowed.” (citation omitted).

(1) After being read his Miranda rights, the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the fact that he never signed the waiver of rights form established that that no waiver occurred. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that he was incapable of knowingly and intelligently waiving his rights because his borderline mental capacity prevented him from fully understanding those rights. In this regard, the court relied in part on a later psychological evaluation diagnosing the defendant as malingering and finding him competent to stand trial. (2) After waiving his right to counsel the defendant did not unambiguously ask to speak a lawyer. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he made a clear request for counsel. It concluded: “Defendant never expressed a clear desire to speak with an attorney. Rather, he appears to have been seeking clarification regarding whether he had a right to speak with an attorney before answering any of the detective’s questions.” The court added: “There is a distinct difference between inquiring whether one has the right to counsel and actually requesting counsel. Once defendant was informed that it was his decision whether to invoke the right to counsel, he opted not to exercise that right.”

The defendant’s waiver of Miranda rights was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. Among other things, the defendant was familiar with the criminal justice system, no threats or promises were made to him before he agreed to talk, and the defendant was not deprived of any necessaries. Although there was evidence documenting the defendant’s limited mental capacity, the record in no way indicated that the defendant was confused during the interrogation, that he did not understand any of the rights as they were read to him, or that he was unable to comprehend the ramifications of his statements.

The defendant’s waiver of Miranda rights was valid where Miranda warnings were given by an officer who was not fluent in Spanish. The officer communicated effectively with the defendant in Spanish, notwithstanding the lack of fluency. The defendant gave clear, logical, and appropriate responses to questions. Also, when the officer informed the defendant of his Miranda rights, he did not translate English to Spanish but rather read aloud the Spanish version of the waiver of rights form. Even if the defendant did not understand the officer, the defendant read each right, written in Spanish, initialed next to each right, and signed the form indicating that he understood his rights. The court noted that officers are not required to orally apprise a defendant of Miranda rights to effectuate a valid waiver.

The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to exclude the defendant’s statements to investigating officers after his arrest. The defendant had argued that because of his limited command of English, the Miranda warnings were inadequate and he did not freely and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. The court determined that there was ample evidence to support a conclusion that the defendant’s English skills sufficiently enabled him to understand the Miranda warnings that were read to him. Among other things, the court referenced the defendant’s ability to comply with an officer’s instructions and the fact that he wrote his confession in English. The court also concluded that the evidence was sufficient to permit a finding that the defendant’s command of English was sufficient to permit him to knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights, referencing, among other things, his command of conversational English and the fact that he never asked for an interpreter.

A SBI Agent’s testimony at the suppression hearing supported the trial court’s finding that the Agent advised the defendant of his Miranda rights, read each statement on the Miranda form and asked the defendant if he understood them, put check marks on the list by each statement as he went through indicating that the defendant had assented, and then twice confirmed that the defendant understood all of the rights read to him. The totality of the circumstances fully supports the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant’s waiver of Miranda rights was made freely, voluntarily, and understandingly.

State v. Knight, 369 N.C. 640 (June 9, 2017)

Applying Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010),the court held that the defendant understood his Miranda rights and through a course of conduct indicating waiver, provided a knowing and voluntary waiver of those rights. During the interrogation, the defendant never said that he wanted to remain silent, did not want to talk with the police, or that he wanted an attorney. In fact, the 40-minute video of the interrogation shows that the defendant was willing to speak with the detective. After being read his rights, the defendant indicated that he wanted to tell his side of the story and he talked at length during the interrogation, often interrupting the detective, and responding without hesitation to the detective’s questions. The video also shows that the defendant emphatically denied any wrongdoing; provided a detailed account of the evening’s events; and seemed to try to talk his way out of custody. The court found this last point “worth emphasizing because it appears that, when faced with a choice between invoking his rights or trying to convince the police that he was innocent, defendant chose to do the latter.” The court concluded that the defendant’s course of conduct indicating waiver was much more pronounced than that of the defendant in Berghuis, who largely remained silent during a lengthy interrogation and who gave very limited responses when he did speak and nonetheless was found to have implicitly waived his rights. The court went on to conclude that, as in Berghuis, there was no evidence that the defendant’s statements were involuntary. The defendant was not threatened in any way and the detective did not make any promises to get the defendant to talk. The interrogation was conducted in a standard room and lasted less than 40 minutes. The only factor that could even arguably constitute coercion was the fact that the defendant’s arm was handcuffed to a bar on the wall in the interrogation room. The court noted however that his chair had an armrest, his arm had an ample range of motion, and he did not appear to be in discomfort during the interrogation. Thus, the court concluded, the defendant voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. The court went on to reject the defendant’s argument that he did not understand his rights, again citing Berghuis. Here, the detective read all of the rights aloud, speaking clearly. The video shows that the defendant appeared to be listening and paying attention and that he speaks English fluently. The court noted that the defendant was mature and experienced enough to understand his rights, in part because of his prior experience with the criminal justice system. The trial court found the defendant gave no indication of cognitive issues, nor was there anything else that could have impaired his understanding of his rights. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State must prove that the defendant explicitly stated that he understood his rights. Rather, it concluded that the State simply must prove, under the totality of the circumstances, that the defendant in fact understand them. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant had expressly denied that he understood his rights, such a bare statement, without more, would not be enough to outweigh other evidence suggesting that he in fact understand them. The court summarized:

[T]he fact that a defendant affirmatively denies that he understands his rights cannot, on its own, lead to suppression. Again, while an express written or oral statement of waiver of Miranda rights is usually strong proof of the validity of that waiver, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish waiver. Likewise, a defendant’s affirmative acknowledgement that he understands his Miranda rights is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish that a defendant in fact understood them, because the test for a defendant’s understanding looks to the totality of the circumstances. Just because a defendant says that he understands his rights, after all, does not mean that he actually understands them. By the same token, just because a defendant claims not to understand his rights does not necessarily mean that he does not actually understand them. In either situation, merely stating something cannot, in and of itself, establish that the thing stated is true. That is exactly why a trial court must analyze the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a defendant in fact understood his rights. As a result, even if defendant here had denied that he understood his rights—and again, in context it appears that he did not—that would not change our conclusion in this case. (citation omitted).

It continued, noting that any suggestion in the Court of Appeals’ opinion suggesting that a defendant must make some sort of affirmative verbal response or affirmative gesture to acknowledge that he has understood his Miranda rights for his waiver to be valid “is explicitly disavowed.” (citation omitted).

(1) In this case involving a gang-related home invasion and murder, the court remanded to the trial court on the issue of whether the defendant’s waiver of his right to counsel was voluntary. Officers interrogated the 15-year-old defendant four times over an eight hour period. Although he initially denied being involved in either a shooting or a killing, he later admitted to being present for the shooting. He denied involvement in the killing, but gave a detailed description of the murders and provided a sketch of the home based on information he claimed to have received from another person. All four interviews were videotaped. At trial, the State sought to admit the videotaped interrogation and the defendant’s sketch of the home into evidence. The defendant moved to suppress on grounds that the evidence was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. He appealed arguing that the trial court’s suppression order lacks key findings concerning law enforcement’s communications with him after he invoked his right to counsel. The video recording of the interrogation shows that the defendant initially waived his right to counsel and spoke to officers. But, after lengthy questioning, he re-invoked his right to counsel and the officers ceased their interrogation and left the room. During that initial questioning, law enforcement told the defendant that they were arresting him on drug charges. The officers also told the defendant they suspected he was involved in the killings, but they did not tell him they were charging him with those crimes, apparently leaving him under the impression that he was charged only with drug possession. Before being re-advised of his rights and signing a second waiver form, the defendant engaged in an exchange with the police chief, who was standing outside of the interrogation room. During the exchange, the defendant asked about being able to make a phone call; the police chief responded that would occur later because he was being arrested and needed to be booked for the shooting. The defendant insisted that he had nothing to do with that and had told the police everything he knew. The chief responded: “Son, you f***** up.” Later, when officers re-entered the interrogation room, the defendant told them that he wanted to waive his right to counsel and make a statement. The trial court’s order however did not address the exchange with the chief. Because of this, the court concluded that it could not examine the relevant legal factors applicable to this exchange, such as the intent of the police; whether the practice is designed to elicit an incriminating response from the accused; and any knowledge the police may have had concerning the unusual susceptibility of a defendant to a particular form of persuasion. The court thus remanded for the trial court to address this issue.

(2) The court went on however to reject the defendant’s argument that separate and apart from the chief’s communication with him, his waiver of his right to counsel was involuntary given his age, the officers’ interrogation tactics, and his lack of sleep, food, and medication. The court concluded that the trial court’s order addressed these factors and, based on facts supported by competent evidence in the record, concluded that the defendant’s actions and statements showed awareness and cognitive reasoning during the entire interview and that he was not coerced into making any statements, but rather made his statements voluntarily. Because the trial court’s fact findings on these issues are supported by competent evidence, and those findings in turn support the court’s conclusions, the court rejected this voluntariness challenge.

No prejudicial error occurred when the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress statements made by him while being transported in a camera-equipped police vehicle. After being read his Miranda rights, the defendant invoked his right to counsel. He made the statements at issue while later being transported in the vehicle. The court explained that to determine whether a defendant’s invoked right to counsel has been waived, courts must consider whether the post-invocation interrogation was police-initiated and whether the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived the right. Although the trial court did not apply the correct legal standard and failed to make the necessary factual findings, any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, given that the defendant’s statements contained little relevant evidence, they were not “particularly prejudicial,” and the other evidence in the case in strong.

The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant initiated contact with the police following his initial request for counsel and thus waived his right to counsel. After the defendant asserted his right to counsel, the police returned him to the interrogation room and again asked if he wanted counsel, to which he said yes. Then, on the way from the interrogation room back to the jail, a detective told the defendant that an attorney would not able to help him and that he would be served with warrants regardless of whether an attorney was there. The police knew or should have known that telling the defendant that an attorney could not help him with the warrants would be reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. It was only after this statement by police that the defendant agreed to talk. Therefore, the court concluded, the defendant did not initiate the communication. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant had initiated communication with police, his waiver was not knowing and intelligent. The trial court had found that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of showing that the defendant made a knowing and intelligent waiver, relying on the facts that the defendant was 18 years old and had limited experience with the criminal justice system, there was a period of time between 12:39 p.m. and 12:54 p.m. where there is no evidence as to what occurred, and there was no audio or video recording. The court found that the defendant’s age and inexperience, when combined with the circumstances of his interrogation, support the trial court’s conclusion that the State failed to prove the defendant’s waiver was knowing and intelligent.

The defendant was arrested in connection with a shooting that left one victim dead and another injured. At the start of their interrogation of the defendant, officers presented him with a written notification of his constitutional rights, which contained Miranda warnings. During the three-hour interrogation, the defendant never said that he wanted to remain silent, did not want to talk with the police, or he wanted a lawyer. Although he was largely silent, he gave a limited number of verbal answers, such as “yeah,” “no,” and “I don’t know,” and on occasion he responded by nodding his head. After two hours and forty-five minutes, the defendant was asked whether he believed in God and whether he prayed to God. When he answered in the affirmative, he was asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” The defendant answered “yes,” and the interrogation ended shortly thereafter. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that his answers to the officers’ questions were inadmissible because he had invoked his privilege to remain silent by not saying anything for a sufficient period of time such that the interrogation should have ceased before he made his inculpatory statements. Noting that in order to invoke the Miranda right to counsel, a defendant must do so unambiguously, the Court determined that there is no reason to adopt a different standard for determining when an accused has invoked the Miranda right to remain silent. It held that in the case before it, the defendant’s silence did not constitute an invocation of the right to remain silent. The Court went on to hold that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent when he answered the officers’ questions. The Court clarified that a waiver may be implied through the defendant’s silence, coupled with an understanding of rights, and a course of conduct indicating waiver. In this case, the Court concluded that there was no basis to find that the defendant did not understand his rights, his answer to the question about praying to God for forgiveness for the shooting was a course of conduct indicating waiver, and there was no evidence that his statement was coerced. Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police were not allowed to question him until they first obtained a waiver as inconsistent with the rule that a waiver can be inferred from the actions and words of the person interrogated.

Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98 (Feb. 24, 2010)

The Court held that a 2½ year break in custody ended the presumption of involuntariness established in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) (when a defendant invokes the right to have counsel present during a custodial interrogation, a valid waiver of that right cannot be established by showing that the defendant responded to further police-initiated custodial interrogation even if the defendant has been advised of his Miranda rights; the defendant is not subject to further interrogation until counsel has been provided or the defendant initiates further communications with the police). The defendant was initially interrogated about a sexual assault while in prison serving time for an unrelated crime. After Miranda rights were given, he declined to be interviewed without counsel, the interview ended, and the defendant was released back into the prison’s general population. 2½ years later another officer interviewed the defendant in prison about the same sexual assault. After the officer read the defendant his Miranda rights, the defendant waived those rights in writing and made incriminating statements. At trial, the defendant unsuccessfully tried to suppress his statements pursuant to Edwards. The Court concluded: “The protections offered by Miranda, which we have deemed sufficient to ensure that the police respect the suspect’s desire to have an attorney present the first time police interrogate him, adequately ensure that result when a suspect who initially requested counsel is reinterrogated after a break in custody that is of sufficient duration to dissipate its coercive effects.” The Court went on to set a 14-day break in custody as the bright line rule for when the Edwards protection terminates. It also concluded that the defendant’s release back into the general prison population to continue serving a sentence for an unrelated conviction constituted a break in Miranda custody.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating statements made to police during a custodial interview. The defendant asserted that the statements were made after he invoked his right to counsel. Before the custodial interview, the defendant was advised of his Miranda rights, initialed and signed the Miranda rights form, waived his Miranda rights, and spoke with law enforcement. The defendant asked at one point “Can I consult with a lawyer, I mean, or anything?” Finding that the trial court did not err by concluding that this question was not an unambiguous assertion of the right to counsel, the court noted:

Merely one-tenth of a second elapsed between the time that defendant asked, “[c]an I consult with a lawyer, I mean, or anything?” and then stated, “I mean I – I – I did it. I’m not laughing man, I want to cry because its f[*]cked up to be put on the spot like this.” The officers then immediately reminded defendant of his Miranda rights, that they had just read him those rights, that defendant “ha[d] the right to have [his attorney] here,” and that the officers “[could] never make that choice for [him] one way or another.” After police attempted to clarify whether defendant’s question was an affirmative assertion of his Miranda rights, defendant declined to unambiguously assert that right, continued communications, and never again asked about counsel for the rest of the interview.

The court concluded that although the defendant explicitly asked if he could consult with a lawyer, considering the totality of the circumstances his statement was ambiguous or equivocal, such that the officers were not required to cease questioning. He did not pause between the time he asked for counsel and gave his initial confession, the officers immediately reminded him of his Miranda rights to clarify if he was indeed asserting his right to counsel, and the defendant declined the offered opportunity to unambiguously assert that right but instead continued communicating with the officers. The court went on to hold that even if his question could be objectively construed as an unambiguous invocation of his Miranda rights it was immediately waived when he initiated further communication.

The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant initiated contact with the police following his initial request for counsel and thus waived his right to counsel. After the defendant asserted his right to counsel, the police returned him to the interrogation room and again asked if he wanted counsel, to which he said yes. Then, on the way from the interrogation room back to the jail, a detective told the defendant that an attorney would not able to help him and that he would be served with warrants regardless of whether an attorney was there. The police knew or should have known that telling the defendant that an attorney could not help him with the warrants would be reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. It was only after this statement by police that the defendant agreed to talk. Therefore, the court concluded, the defendant did not initiate the communication. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant had initiated communication with police, his waiver was not knowing and intelligent. The trial court had found that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of showing that the defendant made a knowing and intelligent waiver, relying on the facts that the defendant was 18 years old and had limited experience with the criminal justice system, there was a period of time between 12:39 p.m. and 12:54 p.m. where there is no evidence as to what occurred, and there was no audio or video recording. The court found that the defendant’s age and inexperience, when combined with the circumstances of his interrogation, support the trial court’s conclusion that the State failed to prove the defendant’s waiver was knowing and intelligent.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confession was improperly obtained after he invoked his right to counsel. Although the defendant invoked his right to counsel before making the statements at issue, because he re-initiated the conversation with police, his right to counsel was not violated when detectives took his later statements. 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress where, although the defendant initially invoked his Miranda right to counsel during a custodial interrogation, he later reinitiated conversation with the officer. The defendant was not under the influence of impairing substances, no promises or threats were made to him, and the defendant was again fully advised of and waived his Miranda rights before he made the statement at issue.

Bobby v. Dixon, 565 U.S. 23 (Nov. 7, 2011)

The Court, per curiam, held that the Sixth Circuit erroneously concluded that a state supreme court ruling affirming the defendant’s murder conviction was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The defendant and an accomplice murdered the victim, obtained an identification card in the victim’s name, and sold the victim’s car. An officer first spoke with the defendant during a chance encounter when the defendant was voluntarily at the police station for completely unrelated reasons. The officer gave the defendant Miranda warnings and asked to talk to him about the victim’s disappearance. The defendant declined to answer questions without his lawyer and left. Five days later, after receiving information that the defendant had sold the victim’s car and forged his name, the defendant was arrested for forgery and was interrogated. Officers decided not to give the defendant Miranda warnings for fear that he would again refuse to speak with them. The defendant admitted to obtaining an identification card in the victim’s name but claimed ignorance about the victim’s disappearance. An officer told the defendant that “now is the time to say” whether he had any involvement in the murder because “if [the accomplice] starts cutting a deal over there, this is kinda like, a bus leaving. The first one that gets on it is the only one that’s gonna get on.” When the defendant continued to deny knowledge of the victim’s disappearance, the interrogation ended. That afternoon the accomplice led the police to the victim’s body, saying that the defendant told him where it was. The defendant was brought back for questioning. Before questioning began, the defendant said that he heard they had found a body and asked whether the accomplice was in custody. When the police said that the accomplice was not in custody, the defendant replied, “I talked to my attorney, and I want to tell you what happened.” Officers read him Miranda rights and obtained a signed waiver of those rights. At this point, the defendant admitted murdering the victim. The defendant’s confession to murder was admitted at trial and the defendant was convicted of, among other things, murder and sentenced to death. After the state supreme court affirmed, defendant filed for federal habeas relief. The district court denied relief but the Sixth Circuit reversed.

            The Court found that the Sixth Circuit erred in three respects. First, it erred by concluding that federal law clearly established that police could not speak to the defendant when five days earlier he had refused to speak to them without his lawyer. The defendant was not in custody during the chance encounter and no law says that a person can invoke his Miranda rights anticipatorily, in a context other than custodial interrogation. Second, the Sixth Circuit erroneously held that police violated the Fifth Amendment by urging the defendant to “cut a deal” before his accomplice did so. No precedent holds that this common police tactic is unconstitutional. Third, the Sixth Circuit erroneously concluded that the state supreme court unreasonably applied Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298 (1985), when it held that the defendant’s second confession was voluntary. As the state supreme court explained, the defendant’s statements were voluntary. During the first interrogation, he received several breaks, was given water and offered food, and was not abused or threatened. He freely acknowledged that he forged the victim’s name and had no difficulty denying involvement with the victim’s disappearance. Prior to his second interrogation, the defendant made an unsolicited declaration that he had spoken with his attorney and wanted to tell the police what happened. Then, before giving his confession, the defendant received Miranda warnings and signed a waiver-of-rights form. The state court recognized that the defendant’s first interrogation involved an intentional Miranda violation but concluded that the breach of Miranda procedures involved no actual compulsion and thus there was no reason to suppress the later, warned confession. The Sixth Circuit erred by concluding that Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004), mandated a different result. The nature of the interrogation here was different from that in Seibert. Here, the Court explained, the defendant denied involvement in the murder and then after Miranda warnings were given changed course and confessed (in Seibert the defendant confessed in both times). Additionally, the Court noted, in contrast to Seibert, the two interrogations at issue here did not occur in one continuum. 

Considering the circumstances under which Miranda warnings are required when a member of the Armed Forces is questioned by a superior officer about involvement in the commission of a crime, the court concluded that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements to the officer lacked findings of fact on key issues and that the trial court did not fully apply the correct legal standard; it held however that the trial court properly denied a motion to suppress statements in a jail letter. The defendant’s motion to suppress pertained, in relevant part, to two items of inculpatory evidence: an oral statement made to Sgt. Schlegelmilch, a non-commissioned first sergeant in the third brigade of the United States Army, on 18 August 2011; and written statements contained in a letter sent by the defendant from jail to Sgt. Schlegelmilch.

(1) As to the oral statement made to Schlegelmilch, the court vacated and remanded, finding that the trial court did not make factual findings on several issues integral to the question of whether a Miranda violation had occurred and it failed to fully apply the correct legal standard applicable to the issue. The defendant argued that because he was interrogated by a superior officer who had the power to arrest him, a custodial interrogation occurred. The State countered that no custodial arrest can occur unless the soldier is questioned by a commissioned officer with independent arrest authority. Citing federal law, the court noted that a commanding officer may delegate arrest authority to a non-commissioned officer. When this has occurred, the non-commissioned officer’s interrogation of the soldier can trigger the need for Miranda warnings. Here, it is undisputed that Schlegelmilch was a non-commissioned officer. Therefore to resolve the issue of whether the defendant was entitled to Miranda warnings, it is necessary to determine whether she had previously been delegated authority to arrest the defendant by a commanding officer as authorized by federal law. However, the trial court did not make any findings of fact as to whether such a delegation occurred. Additionally, the trial court’s order suggests that it failed to understand the potential applicability of Miranda if Schlegelmilch had, in fact, been delegated authority to arrest and then proceeded to question him under circumstances amounting to custodial interrogation. Nor, the court continued, did the trial court make findings about the specific degree to which the defendant’s liberty had been restricted when he made the statements. The court thus vacated the portion of the trial court’s suppression order relating to the statements and remanded for additional findings of fact and conclusions of law, along with a new hearing if necessary.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the contents of the jail letter. While the defendant was being held in jail after his arrest, the decision was made to initiate military discharge proceedings against him. When the defendant was delivered a notice of separation, he signed a memorandum indicating that he would not contest the proceedings. Thereafter and while in jail, he exchanged letters with Schlegelmilch. In the reply letter at issue, the defendant gave an account of the victim’s death, including inculpatory statements. The defendant argued that the letter should have been suppressed because it was a response to a letter from Schlegelmilch asking the defendant to explain how the victim had died and thus constituted a custodial interrogation. The court rejected this argument, finding the circumstances under which the letter was written did not implicate Miranda. First, it noted the defendant’s failure to cite any cases supporting the proposition that questioning conducted through an exchange of letters can constitute a custodial interrogation for purposes of Miranda, nor did the court’s own research reveal any legal authority for that proposition. Furthermore, the court noted, when the defendant responded to Schlegelmilch’s letter, he was in the midst of being discharged from the military, was not contesting those proceedings, and thus the circumstances “simply do not amount to the type of coercive environment that Miranda was intended to address.” The court thus affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress with respect to the letter.

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