Maryland Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court's Suppression Ruling

December 28, 2011
By Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC on December 28, 2011 9:28 AM |

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued a ruling last week in a case that could have long-reaching effects on police interrogation, overturning a trial court's suppression of a Defendant's statements based on a finding that he was not in custody when he incriminated himself. Although the case will surely be appealed, if the Court of Special Appeals' ruling is upheld, a loophole in the requirement that police officers provide arrested individuals their "Miranda rights" has been expanded.

The rights protected by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona, have long been a bastion of protection for criminal defendants: these include, primarily, the right to not provide the police with self-inculpatory statements, and the right to representation by an attorney. The police know that when a suspect has an attorney representing him or her, the chances of obtaining incriminating evidence against that suspect drop off precipitously. Our experienced Annapolis criminal defense attorneys have the background necessary to protect these and other rights that criminal defendants have at their disposal.

handcuffs.jpg In State v. Thomas, the Defendant Thomas was interrogated at a police station regarding allegations that he had sexually assaulted his 14-year-old daughter. After a pre-trial suppression hearing, the trial court found that a reasonable person in the Defendant's position - sitting in a police interrogation room with the door closed, albeit unlocked, and being questioned about having sex with his daughter - would not have felt free to leave. The trial court also determined that the detectives were not merely asking questions to determine what had happened; they were actively trying to develop a case against the Defendant. As the trial court stated, "[the detectives] were gathering evidence. 'What did you do? Where was she touched? When did it start? How many times did you do it?' And the argument is that Miranda warnings should not have been given?"

The trial court continued, "[a]t the end of the day, the query remains, what is wrong with giving people their Miranda rights? And I'll tell you what's wrong with it. As soon as defendants are given their Miranda warnings, they often lawyer up. And when they lawyer up, they don't get the information that detectives want to get."

The State appealed the evidence suppression under Section 12-302 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article of the Maryland Code, which permits interlocutory appeals under very limited circumstances. Following the appeal, the Court of Special Appeals overturned the trial court's suppression. There are a number of factors that the Court had to weigh to determine whether the interrogation at the police station was "custodial." These include:

when and where it occurred, how long it lasted, how many police were present, what the officers and the defendant said and did, the presence of actual physical restraint on the defendant or things equivalent to actual restraint such as drawn weapons or a guard stationed at the door, and whether the defendant was being questioned as a suspect or as a witness. Facts pertaining to events before the interrogation are also relevant, especially how the defendant got to the place of questioning whether he came completely on his own, in response to a police request or escorted by police officers. Finally, what happened after the interrogation whether the defendant left freely, was detained or arrested may assist the court in determining whether the defendant, as a reasonable person, would have felt free to break off the questioning.

Pre-Interrogation

The Court of Special Appeals determined that since the Defendant had driven himself at the station at the mere request, rather than demand, of the police officers, that there was no coercion on the part of the police in getting him to the station.

During the Interrogation

The Court cited the facts that the "interview" occurred in a "child interview room" and that the police station did not look like a police station, as factors weighing against a finding that the interrogation was custodial. Likewise, the Court noted that the officers were "polite, courteous, and respectful" of the Defendant. The Court refused to determine that the interrogation became custodial after the Defendant admitted to sexually abusing his daughter, despite the fact that "this was an admission to a serious crime," because "none of the objective circumstances of the interrogation changed as a result of [the Defendant's] inculpatory remarks."

Post-Interrogation

Although the Defendant was arrested shortly after his interrogation, the Court found that the explanation by the officer that the arrest was only because of concerns about the Defendant's safety to be "consistent with the manner of questioning."

Based on these findings, the Court reversed the trial court, thus permitting the Defendant's statements to be used against him at trial.

Analysis

This case will be interesting to watch when it is appealed to the Court of Appeals, because of the potential for reversal or for further instruction from the Courts on the nature of custodial interrogations. It is this writer's opinion that there are strong grounds for obtaining a reversal by the Court of Appeals. Our Maryland criminal defense attorneys are experienced at presenting convincing arguments to the courts of this state to protect our clients' rights.

Under the Court's ruling, it can be argued that the officers effectively manipulated the system, creating a non-Mirandized situation in which, while the Defendant was for all purposes under arrest, the officers maintained plausible deniability regarding the actuality of the arrest. As such, the officers could question the Defendant and obtain a confession, despite the fact that he had never been informed of his rights to remain silent and his right to an attorney.

The Court applied an extremely narrow definition to the term "coercion" under its analysis of pre-interrogation procedure. Finding that there was no coercion in requesting the Defendant to come to the police station ignores the reality of the objective facts of the case. If the Defendant, a sergeant in the United States Army, had demurred, it would have only been a matter of time before the officers arrived to question him at his military base, which could have had grave repercussions for the Defendant, guilty or not of the charges he ultimately faces. Such an overarching factual scenario imputes coercion into the situation, even if there were no overt threats involved, or intention to coerce on the part of the officers.

With regard to the analysis of the impact of the surrounding activity during the interrogation on the nature of the interrogation, the Court places undue weight on the fact that the police station was, at least in comparison to more intimidating police stations, a relatively pleasant place. In contrast to the Court's finding that the Defendant was never physically restrained, and there was not an armed guard at the door, the fact is that the interrogation occurred in a police station, behind doors that required an access card for entry, and that there were two officers sitting in between the Defendant and the unlocked interior door of the interrogation room. While the Defendant had been told that he was not under arrest, he had every reason to believe that he would be arrested as soon as the interrogation was completed, due to the nature of the questions and the answers he was giving.

The Court gave short shrift to the fact that after the interrogation was completed, the Defendant was arrested. Ostensibly this occurred because the officer "became concerned about his safety," but a more reasonable interpretation of the facts, especially under the standard the Court was required to follow giving deference to the factual findings of the trial court, was that the Defendant was arrested due to the nature of the answers he gave, and possibly even due to the statements provided by his daughter before he ever arrived at the station.

At the very least, the Defendant's interrogation became "custodial" when he confessed to participation in a violent crime while in the presence of law enforcement officers in a police station. While a reasonable interpretation of the evidence might thus support a finding that the interrogation was not custodial up to that point, when the interrogation did become custodial, the officers should have been required to provide the Defendant with notice of his Miranda rights.

Because of the interlocutory nature of the appeal, the case echoes in some regards the case of State v. Blake. In that case, the Defendant's post-arrest statements to police officers were suppressed because of a Miranda violation, a ruling that was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Under Section 12-302(c)(3)(iv), if the State files an interlocutory appeal based on the trial court's suppression of evidence, as the State did in the Thomas case that is the focus of this post, and the appellate court affirms the suppression, the charges against the Defendant must be dropped, except in homicide cases. Prior to Blake, there was no exception for homicide cases; when the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision in that case, the murder charges against the Defendant were required to be dismissed.