The constitution forbids law enforcement from detaining citizens without probable cause, and from obtaining forced confessions. The line between what is forced and what is voluntary can often be blurry. A recent case reinforces that the “reasonable person” standard will govern when determining if a defendant’s actions were voluntary.
Man Convicted of Murder
The case involved an officer who responded to a crime scene with multiple dead bodies. Upon leaving, the officer came upon a man heading to the apartment, and asked the man to stay on premises for further questioning. The man was not put under arrest, even after multiple officers arrived, but remained voluntarily.
At the station, police learned that the man had dealt drugs, and read him his Miranda rights, but the man did not ask to speak to an attorney. The man signed a written consent for a DNA sample and search of his car. Eventually police learned that the man had observed the homicides with his girlfriend, and he gave a statement saying they observed hitmen commit the murders, and assisted in cleaning up the crime scene. Subsequently, the man admitted to committing the murders himself.
Conviction is Challenged
The defendant was ultimately convicted, and challenged the conviction on appeal on a number of grounds. One ground was that he did not consent to the search of his car, and that his statements were unlawfully obtained.
Whether someone is unlawfully detained depends on whether a reasonable person would believe that he or she was free to leave. Just questioning someone does not mean that he or she is being detained unlawfully. Whether someone reasonably believes that he or she can leave or not depends on the circumstances, such as the number of officers present, whether the person is removed to another location, whether a person’s belongings are held by police, or whether the police officers’ behavior is threatening.
The court found that the defendant was not unlawfully detained, as he had returned to the scene voluntarily, was cooperative, and voluntarily told police he knew the victims. The police did not threaten him at all.
Confession was Voluntary
As for his confession, and whether it was coerced, the court found that it had been given voluntarily. A court will look at a number of different factors including where a confession was made (police station or elsewhere), a defendant’s mental and physical state, the length of police interrogation, and whether Miranda warnings are given out to determine coercion. A statement made after a promise of a benefit is also considered involuntary.
The court found that no such promise was made to the defendant to get him to confess. Police did tell him that his girlfriend had implicated him in the killing, and that he “needed to think about that” and get his version of the facts out first. But there was no evidence that police used that to coerce him to confess, or that they promised him any special treatment in return for a confession.
Thus, the conviction was upheld, and the evidence used to convict the defendant was determined to be lawfully obtained.
Your constitutional rights depend on the ability to uncover and produce facts and evidence. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case if you are charged with a crime or arrested.