Monday, November 8, 2010

Groping Grandpa Gets Reprieve: Miranda Violation Requires Suppression

by Andrew Delaney

State v. Muntean, 2010 VT 88

From the dysfunctional-family-from-hell case files comes the Court’s latest ruling on when police custody begins and Miranda warnings are required. The Court affirms the trial court’s suppression order finding that defendant was in police custody during an interview. Buckle up folks—it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.

In late 2007, State Police began investigating defendant for molesting his daughters when they were children, and more recently, for molesting his grandsons. Both defendant’s adult daughters told a detective that defendant had molested them when they were children, and two grandsons recounted recent sexual abuse. On January 2, 2008, the detective requested that defendant come into the Rutland State Police Barracks for an interview. No subject was mentioned, but the interview was arranged for the next day to accommodate defendant’s schedule, and defendant agreed to it.

The next day, defendant entered the barracks through a public entrance. He was then taken by the detective to a secure part of the barracks. The detective, save for a badge on his belt, was dressed in plain clothes; the detective was not carrying a gun.

The detective and the defendant went forty or fifty feet down a hall to a small, windowless “polygraph room.” The defendant sat in the “polygraph chair.” The detective closed the room’s door without objection, and sat down across from the defendant. The defendant’s access to the door was not blocked. 

When the detective asked defendant if the defendant could say what he thought the allegations were, the defendant said “No.” The defendant then elaborated that he needed “a lawyer to co-sign,” and implied that he couldn’t tell the detective what the allegations might be without a lawyer.

The detective then told defendant that the allegations involved inappropriate touching, at which point the defendant mentioned that he watched TV and knew not to say anything without a lawyer present. The detective said that it was the defendant’s choice, and mentioned that the defendant was not under arrest and was there of his own free will.

In the following conversation, the defendant and the detective went back and forth about whether or not defendant needed an attorney. The detective maintained that defendant was not under arrest, and thus did not need a lawyer, while defendant demonstrated a good working knowledge of Miranda (“Do I need rights now? What is being said against me, you know?”).

Defendant eventually admitted to specific acts of inappropriate touching involving his daughters, but maintained that he never inappropriately touched his grandsons. The detective indicated that defendant was being less than truthful, and at one point, defendant said, “You know I did. I know you got me. Just, I hope you’re not on my jury.”

At the end of the interview, which lasted about an hour, the detective cited defendant to court for aggravated sexual assault on a minor. Defendant was fingerprinted and photographed, and left the barracks.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress based on violation of Miranda. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the totality of the circumstances indicated that defendant was in police custody during the interview. The trial court focused on the detective’s failure to tell the defendant that he was free to terminate the interview or leave at any time, immediate confrontation with evidence of a serious crime, and that the detective told defendant that he “knew” defendant had committed the crimes. For the trial court, these factors and the physical setting (small, windowless room in a secured area) of the room led to a finding of police custody. The State took an interlocutory appeal to the Court.

The Court, in a 3-2 ruling, affirmed. At the outset, the Court notes that it is acting less like a high court and more as an intermediate court in interpreting Miranda and, “There is no exhaustive list of criteria that can be considered in making the custody determination, nor is there one particular factor that must be considered in every case.” The Court articulates that it must consider the totality of the circumstances and evaluate “whether a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.”

The Court first considers the trial court’s findings of fact. Seeing no shenanigans, the Court quickly disposes of the matter of attendant circumstances and finds that it will adopt the trial court’s findings as articulated.  

The Court next finds that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to leave. In so finding, the Court notes that defendant was in a small, windowless room in a secured part of the police barracks; “the detective did not tell defendant that he was free to leave whenever he so desired”; and the detective’s conduct toward the defendant would indicate to a reasonable person that he or she was in deep doo-doo (so to speak) and was not free to leave. 

The Court made a clear effort to distinguish its recent Miranda-based decision in State v. Oney, 2009 VT 116. In Oney, the defendant was a young man who was accused of setting several fires. When the police interviewed him, the police were sure to tell defendant that he was free to leave at any time. The police also lied to the defendant and told him that he was only facing misdemeanor charges. Accordingly, the Court found that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda.

Here, the Court notes, the defendant was never told that he was free to leave. The Court also points out that defendant here, unlike the defendant in Oney, was immediately confronted with evidence of a serious crime. Some readers may be scratching their heads at this point, thinking, Arson isn’t a serious crime? What our dear readers must understand is that the State Police detective here failed to lie to the defendant about the nature of potential charges. In others words, if the police create false hopes in the suspect through deceit, then there is no need for Miranda. Do defense attorneys need more evidence than this to demonstrate to clients that speaking to the police is a bad, bad idea?

The Court concludes that because the defendant’s freedom of movement was curtailed and a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave, the defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda and that the detective’s failure to give Miranda warnings required suppression of the interview. 

Chief Justice Reiber dissented. The dissent maintains that the current case is factually indistinguishable from Oney. The dissent begins by noting that Oney issued five months after the trial court’s ruling here. According to the dissent’s reasoning, had Oney already issued when the trial court ruled, the trial court would undoubtedly have come to a different conclusion. Because, under Oney, the defendant would not have been in custody here, the dissent would reverse the trial court’s ruling on the suppression motion. Justice Burgess joined the dissent. 

The lesson for the police here? Lie. If it’s a felony, just call it a misdemeanor. If you might later decide to arrest the defendant, just tell the defendant that he’s free to leave. It’s not like you have to mean it. Pity the officer who’s not full of it, for he is the officer whose interview shall be suppressed. 

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