Legal Updates Winter 2020

Incriminating statements were made in violation of Miranda

In Risinger v. Indiana (December 2019) the Court of Appeals of Indiana found that the defendant’s incriminating statements were made in violation of his Miranda rights.

The defendant had been found guilty but mentally ill of setting fire to his trailer and killing Jeffrey Charles. From the Court’s opinion:

We conclude that Risinger's waivers of his Miranda rights were voluntary. Before each interview Detective Busick read Risinger's Miranda rights to him. Risinger acknowledged verbally or through a thumbs up that he understood those rights and was willing to talk to Detective Busick. Risinger also read and signed a form acknowledging and waiving his rights.

We also conclude that Risinger's statements to the detectives were voluntary. While it is true Risinger was suffering from a mental illness, that is only one of the numerous factors to be considered by the trial court in determining voluntariness….. The detectives used the Reid and cognitive interviewing techniques; although Risinger characterizes these techniques as deceptive, these are standard interviewing techniques routinely used by law enforcement. The trial court agreed with Dr. Parker's determination that Risinger was sane at the time he committed the offense and that his delusional disorder did not manifest throughout the interview and only appeared near the end of the first interview. Given the totality of the circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Risinger made his waivers and statements voluntarily.

Risinger contends that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the majority of the statements he made during police interviews because they were obtained in violation of his right to remain silent pursuant to Miranda. Specifically, Risinger contends that his rights were violated when the detectives continued to question him after he had stated “I'm done talking.”

Here, Risinger unequivocally invoked his Miranda rights by stating “I'm done talking.” Under these circumstances, we conclude that “I'm done talking” was Risinger's expressed desire to remain silent. While Risinger could have been clearer in expressing his desire by stating something such as “I'm invoking my right to remain silent,” such a formal declaration is not what the law requires. Rather than honoring Risinger's assertion of his right to remain silent, the detectives continued to question him. This failure to scrupulously honor Risinger's invocation of his Miranda rights led to the detectives obtaining incriminating statements from Risinger. Thus, we conclude that the statements made by Risinger during the first interview should not have been admitted at trial, with the exception of those made prior to Risinger's invocation of his Miranda rights approximately nineteen minutes into the interview.

Click here for the complete decision.

Confession voluntariness: ambiguous request to terminate the questioning and over stating the evidence is not coercive 

In People v. Hoyt (January 2020) the Supreme Court of California upheld the admissibility of the defendant’s confession and rejected his claims that the confession was coerced and that his request to terminate the interview was ignored. From the Court’s opinion:

The defendant was convicted of first degree murder and one count of kidnapping. Defendant contends the trial court erred by admitting the audio and videotapes of his custodial confession to killing Nick, which he claims were involuntary and were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights. 

Defendant contends that even if he voluntarily reinitiated contact with the detectives and waived his Miranda rights, the detectives later improperly failed to honor his requests to cut off questioning. Defendant points to two episodes in particular. The first episode occurred when defendant asked detectives: “Do you mind if I go back to my cell and think about tonight and talk to you guys tomorrow ....” Defendant contends that at this point, detectives should have stopped questioning him. But after a suspect has waived his Miranda rights, officers are not required to cease questioning unless the suspect invokes his rights unambiguously and unequivocally. 

Defendant’s question did not amount to an unambiguous and unequivocal invocation of the right to cut off questioning. Nor did the colloquy that followed. Sergeant Reinstadler told defendant that once he was “arraigned, we can’t talk to you. That’s the bottom line. I mean, if you want to tell us something, I’m being honest with you, this is your opportunity to do it. This is it.…. Because defendant never unambiguously invoked his right to stop the interview, the detectives were under no obligation to do so.

The second episode occurred after defendant had spoken to the detectives for some time about how he had learned he could erase his debt to Hollywood in exchange for traveling to Santa Barbara to kill a person unknown to him. When the detectives asked defendant what happened next, defendant said, “You guys know what happened. I think I’m going to stop there for now. Can I get some more water, please?” Defendant argues that even if the detectives were not obligated to stop before, they were obligated to stop questioning him at this point. But once again, defendant never unambiguously invoked his right to silence. 

Defendant next contends the detectives employed other coercive interrogation tactics that rendered his confession involuntary. …In particular, he argues that Detective West and Sergeant Reinstadler impliedly threatened him by mentioning the death penalty and that they improperly induced his confession by exaggerating the evidence against him.

…. As the trial court found, there was nothing coercive about the detectives’ brief—and accurate—acknowledgment that the death penalty was a potential punishment for the crimes with which defendant was charged, and it does not appear that the mention of the death penalty prompted defendant’s confession. Nor is urging a defendant to tell his story before matters go any further an impermissible law enforcement tactic. 

As for defendant’s claim that the detectives improperly exaggerated the strength of the evidence against him, defendant points to an exchange in which detectives said others had told them that defendant gagged and shot the victim and dug the grave, which caused defendant to blurt out, “[T]he only thing I did was kill him.” As defendant acknowledges, however, “the use of deceptive comments does not necessarily render a statement involuntary. Deception does not undermine the voluntariness of a defendant’s statements to the authorities unless the deception is “of a type reasonably likely to procure an untrue statement.” 

Click here for the complete decision.

The value of recording the interrogation

In US v. Brannan (February 2020) the US District Court, E.D. Texas rejected the defendant’s claims that his confession was false, and was only given by him based on allegedly false promises made to Brannan by Officer Kennedy and the other interviewing officers. Specifically, Brannan testified that the officers instructed him to give an untruthful confession on the video, in return for which he would be released from jail, permitted to become a confidential informant for law enforcement, and ultimately have any charges against him dismissed. From the Court’s opinion:

Officer Kennedy testified that neither he nor any of the other interviewing officers made any promises to Brannan in return for his confession, much less a promise that, in return for an untruthful confession to committing violent crimes, Brannan would be set free and any charges against him dismissed. Indeed, Officer Kennedy testified that he has no authority to make such promises. To the contrary, Officer Kennedy testified that he understood Brannan’s confession to be genuine.

Brannan’s contrary assertion, that his confession was entirely fabricated by the interviewing officers and then memorized and repeated by Brannan, is devoid of credibility. In this regard, Brannan’s testimony at the motion to suppress hearing was riddled with inconsistencies, fanciful, and unpersuasive.

To begin with, Brannan testified first that the recorded statement was entirely false and had been provided to him in total by the interviewing officers. However, as the recording of Brannan’s confession was played back to him at the hearing, Brannan step-by-step acknowledged the truthfulness of various statements he made in his interview and eventually recanted his earlier position, stating that portions of his statement were “scripted” by the officers, while other parts were “unscripted,” contradicting his own earlier testimony. Brannan went on to acknowledge before the Court that various aspects of his confession were accurate, including: (1) that Brannan does know Jeremiah and Christian Woolard, two individuals discussed in his statement; (2) that Brannan also knows a young woman named Makayla and did claim her as a dependent on his tax return, as was also referenced in his statement; and (3) that Brannan did possess a 1911 Springfield pistol and a holster, and that he threw the pistol on the floor of his truck when he surrendered to the police, again as admitted in his confession.

The context and circumstances of the video-recorded confession also demonstrate that Brannan’s far-fetched version of events cannot be accurate. In the fifteen-minute confession video, Brannan does not use any notes, receive any prompts from the officers, or otherwise appear to be recalling any scripted material allegedly provided by the officers. To the contrary, during his confession Brannan displays multiple outbursts of emotion, and at times searches for words or names that he may not easily remember. 

Under the circumstances, Brannan’s related testimony that his allegedly false confession was based on false promises made by the interviewing officers also lacks credibility. Moreover, even if some kind of offer of leniency was made to Brannan by the officers, and there is no credible evidence to suggest such an offer was made, such an offer would not, standing alone, support the suppression of Brannan’s confession.

Click here for the complete decision.

Criteria to determine custody

In US v. Wilson (February 2020) the US District Court, N.D. Georgia, evaluated the criteria as to what constitutes custody. The defendant claimed that she was in a custodial situation when questioned and that she should have been advised of her rights. The Court rejected this argument. From the Court’s opinion:

The Supreme Court in Miranda explained that “custodial interrogation” means “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” … The Court subsequently defined “custody” in this context as a “formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest.”……. 

The Supreme Court has more recently provided a non-exhaustive list of factors courts should consider in determining whether a suspect is in “custody” for purposes of Miranda:

As used in our Miranda case law, “custody” is a term of art that specifies circumstances that are thought generally to present a serious danger of coercion. In determining whether a person is in custody in this sense, the initial step is to ascertain whether, in light of “the objective circumstances of the interrogation,” …. a “reasonable person [would] have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.” …. in order to determine how a suspect would have “gauge[d]” his “freedom of movement,” courts must examine “all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation.” ….. Relevant factors include the location of the questioning, ….its duration,… statements made during the interview, ….. the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, … and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning…. 

On this record, Defendant does not sustain her burden to show that she was “in custody.” Defendant was not arrested, taken to a squad car, transported to a police station, or even briefly handcuffed. To the contrary, S/A Roberts specifically testified, and Defendant does not deny, that he (S/A Roberts) told Defendant that she was not under arrest. Advice such as this is “a powerful factor in the mix, and generally will lead to the conclusion that the [person] is not in custody absent a finding of restraints that are ‘so extensive that telling the suspect he was free to leave could not cure the custodial aspect of the interview.’ ” …. The Defendant was also interviewed in her own home, and courts “are much less likely to find the circumstances were custodial when the interrogation occurs in familiar or at least neutral surroundings,’ such as a the suspect’s home.” …

The evidentiary hearing in this case was dominated by the unusual factual dispute over whether or not the Defendant was strip searched and forced to expose her body cavities at the inception of the search warrant. Even if this had happened, it would remain the Defendant’s burden to show that this intrusion was “so extensive” that the officers’ assurance that she was not under arrest and other factors could not cure the custodial aspect of the interview…. Defendant cites no legal authority for the conclusion that a strip search necessarily renders a police encounter to be “custodial,” regardless of the other circumstances. In fact, this Circuit has not generally found a strip search to per se convert an encounter into a custodial arrest for purposes of Miranda, where the statement is made after the completion of that search. 

Therefore, Defendant was not “in custody,” and the agents were not obliged under Miranda to furnish any advisements. Defendant’s motion to suppress on grounds of Miranda–which are the only grounds that continue to be asserted in the post-hearing briefing–should be denied.

Click here for the complete decision.

Miranda waiver requirements for a juvenile

In C.J. v. State (January 2020) the Court of Appels of Indiana ruled that the trial court erred in admitting the defendant’s incriminating statements due to the fact that his waiver was not valid because the totality of the circumstances demonstrates he did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily join the waiver. From the Court’s opinion:

Any rights guaranteed to a child under the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Indiana, or any other law may be waived only:

by the child's custodial parent, guardian, custodian, or guardian ad litem if:

(A) that person knowingly and voluntarily waives the right;

(B) that person has no interest adverse to the child;

(C) meaningful consultation has occurred between that person and the child; and

(D) the child knowingly and voluntarily joins with the waiver

Regarding these requirements, our Indiana Supreme Court has explained that before a juvenile's statements can be used in the State's case-in-chief:

First, both the juvenile and his or her parent must be adequately advised of the juvenile's rights. Second, the juvenile must be given an opportunity for meaningful consultation with his or her parent. Third, both the juvenile and his or her parent must knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive the juvenile's rights. Finally, the juvenile's statements must be voluntary and not the result of coercive police activity.

C.J. argues that “[a]s a low-functioning twelve-year-old, he did not and could not understand the nature of the rights being waived.” Mother testified C.J. had an IQ of 70. During the interrogation, C.J.'s speech was stunted, he used poor grammar, and he talked about unrelated topics, like cars and television shows. While waiting to be interrogated by Detective McAllister, C.J. exhibited immature behavior by sprawling on the floor, drumming on the seat of his chair, and singing. Even when C.J. was left alone in the interrogation room after Detective McAllister read the waiver of rights to C.J. and C.J. waived his rights, C.J. hummed, moved chairs, danced, clapped, and laughed.

C.J.'s behavior was not that expected of someone who understands he is being questioned about a serious crime. In its dispositional decree, the trial court found C.J. “has special needs that require services for care and treatment that cannot be provided in the home.” Further, the court found C.J. “often displays inappropriate and immature behaviors, which negatively affects his ability to build and maintain relationships with other children. He does not demonstrate empathy toward adults or other children, and demonstrates significant difficulty understanding how his behavior impacts others.” 

Moreover, C.J. was never informed of the delinquent act of which he was suspected or of the potential consequences. After the interrogation, C.J. asked the arresting officer where he was being taken. There is no evidence C.J. recognized he was being asked about criminal activity during the interrogation. Detective McAllister did not specify the crime C.J. was suspected of committing, and C.J. did not exhibit an independent understanding that he was being accused of a crime. 

After considering the totality of the circumstances, we cannot say that C.J.'s waiver of his rights was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary because of his demonstrated lack of maturity, the fact that he was not advised of the crime and possible consequences, and his minimal consultation with Mother. Therefore, we hold the trial court erred in admitting as evidence the videotape of C.J.'s interrogation and Detective McAllister's testimony regarding C.J.'s statements during the interrogation. 

Click here for the complete decision.