Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Of Mice and Miranda

In re M.A., 2011 VT 9


This case could be subtitled: Everybody Loses.

In 2004, Defendant was a thirty-year old man with mild mental retardation (IQ of 65) who had a close relationship with a nine-year old girl.  Police, alerted that there might be sexual abuse, began to investigate Defendant. 

The police investigation culminated in a four-hour interview of the Defendant by a detective, during which Defendant admitted to molesting the nine-year old and at least two other girls.  Defendant’s statements, however, were couched in a series of child-like responses that included the Defendant’s production of a love letter to the nine-year old covered in hand-drawn hearts. 

Naturally, the open-ended conversation ended with Defendant cuffed, stuffed, and booked for sexual abuse. 


Prior to trial Defendant’s legal team sought to suppress the four-hour interview as coercive and oppressive interrogation techniques preying on Defendant’s intellectual limitations.  The trial court refused the motion noting that it was an open interview, and Defendant was told several times he could leave whenever he wanted.  There were no uniformed police officers, and the tone was breezy and conversational and not unduly manipulative. 

As trial approached, Defendant’s legal team raised issues about Defendant’s competency to stand trial.  The trial court concluded, based on expert testimony, that Defendant was incompetent and convened a hearing that led to a ruling that Defendant should be committed to the custody of the Commissioner of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living (DAIL). 

On appeal, the issues were straightforward.  First, the SCOV affirmed the trial court’s finding by clear and convincing evidence that Defendant needed to be remanded to the custody of DAIL. 

Second, the SCOV carefully showed Defendant’s jurisdictional argument—that only family courts have the authority to hold commitment hearings—to be less than compelling.  The SCOV noted that criminal courts have clear authority to hold commitment hearings once they determine a defendant is unfit to stand trial.  This makes sense.  If they do not have the wherewithal to face criminal allegations, does society want them out on the street for lack of jurisdiction?  The answer from SCOV is an emphatic: Not on Our Watch.

The last and most compelling issue that the SCOV tackles is the nature of the four hour interview.  As a prelude, I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic read David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets.  Mr. Simon has a bravura passage where he describes the delicate dance between a Defendant’s rights and the need for police to get criminals to talk.  Mr. Simon suggests that courts have purposefully kept this area somewhat muddled and subjective for the exact reason that if the language of Miranda were ever strictly enforced, then criminal investigations would cease, and police work would become impossible.  The compromise is to let police have some leeway and put the burden on defendants to assert and act on their rights.  The result is an elaborate dance and sales routine where the police detective has to peddle and sell an imaginary idea: that talking to me will in any way help you. 

Of course, this system is premised on the idea of Defendants being at least functional and capable of making judgments or assessments of a potentially incriminating situation. 

By all evidence here, Defendant was not capable of such decisions or judgments.  Despite everything that occurred, Defendant, at the time of the hearing, still viewed the detective who interviewed him as a friend and trusted him to help with his situation. 

Unfortunately, the SCOV was left with a dilemma.  If it reversed the trial court’s decision on suppression, it put the following decision concerning his commitment at risk.  The interview, while not exclusive evidence, was part of the commitment hearing and did help the trial court make its clear and convincing findings.  Remove that and you start to undermine the final judgment that the SCOV clearly agreed should be upheld.

What was the SCOV to do?  For four justices, there is no question that the interview, while sophisticated and somewhat misleading, was still legal, and they affirmed the denial of suppression.  For Justice Johnson, the answer is to suppress the interview and rely on the rest of the record to affirm the commitment.  In a lengthy concurrence, Justice Johnson takes the interview apart and shows how the detective exploited Defendant’s lack of judgment and low intelligence, time after time, to cajole and push out a confession.  For Justice Johnson, such techniques cross the line with a mentally retarded suspect.  She proposes that such interviews should require a competent adult advocate or risk suppression. 

This position raises questions about how the SCOV or any court would enforce such provisions.  While detectives may know after a few minutes that a suspect has low intelligence, How are they supposed to determine if the suspect is below the intelligence threshold?  Should they cancel or stop an interview if they suspect a person is mentally retarded?  Should they get a psychologist to come in and administer a battery of IQ tests?  What if Defendants’ behaviors are inconsistent?  How would the system prevent abuse?  One could easily predict suspects emphasizing or exaggerating their low intelligence to frustrate or nullify an interrogation.

Yet, these fears are balanced on the other side by emerging data showing that vulnerable people, children, the mentally retarded are susceptible to manipulation within an interrogation and will even confess to crimes that there is no possible way they could have committed.

Unfortunately, these questions remain speculative as Justice Johnson stands alone on this point and is unable to convince any of the other four to join her.  Nevertheless, this case fits in with her continuing jurisprudence to protect the rights of mentally challenged individuals and is no doubt lacking only the right facts and parties to move into the majority.  Defense attorneys in the meantime are commended to read through Justice Johnson’s dissent as a textbook model for taking apart and challenging a potentially oppressive and coercive interrogation.  

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