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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021
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.

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