State v. Knight, 369 N.C. 640 (Jun. 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).