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Search & Seizure – Interrogation Tactics

After studying six DVD recordings of 10 to 12 hours of questioning of a 17-year-old young woman about a fatal shooting, a Norfolk Circuit Court concludes that defendant made an initial knowing and voluntary waiver of her rights, but the interview became custodial – without probable cause to detain – when police took defendant’s cell phone and other personal effects, and the court will suppress statements defendant made after she later said she wanted “to stop talking” about shooting the drug dealer victim when he tried to rape her.

Defendant reviewed the legal rights advice form with the detectives, responded appropriately to their questions regarding her understanding of it, filled it out properly and signed it. The detectives did not coerce or seek to pressure her in any way. The court finds she gave it an appropriate level of attention and correctly comprehended both her Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights as explained therein and also the consequences of waiving those rights. The court finds defendant’s decision to waive her Miranda rights was the product of free and unconstrained choice.

The court concludes that defendant’s interview evolved early-on into a custodial interrogation. The transition occurred well before defendant made statements implicating herself in the fatal shooting.

On the night she was questioned, defendant was an intelligent, mature and articulate college-bound teenage who enjoyed the full measure of her mother’s confidence and trust in matters of her own affairs. She managed those affairs with relative competence, and her lifestyle and the manner in which she conducted herself were more confident, independent and “savvy” than many adults. In this regard, the absence of her mother from, and her mother’s lack of information about, the nature of the police interrogation do not affect the voluntariness of defendant’s statements.

Without question, the officers employed an array of relatively aggressive tactics which, in the end, resulted in defendant yielding in her efforts to deny knowledge of the victim’s death and admitting direct responsibility for it. Moreover, the detectives’ escalation of the interview into a custodial interrogation constituted an improper coercive tactic. At the same time, the evidence convinces the court that defendant was fully cognizant of her situation, was in control of her cognitive powers, understood the circumstances and was exercising her free will when she admitted her involvement.

The court further concludes her inculpatory statements were genuine and it entirely discounts her subsequent attempts to disavow either the content of her statements or her understanding of her rights.

The court finds defendant’s interview progressed into a custodial interrogation during its second hour, at or immediately prior to the time her cell phone and other personal effects were involuntarily taken from her and placed in a manila envelope.

Whatever circumstances might properly constitute an investigative detention, indefinitely holding an individual inside a police interview room under circumstances constituting a de facto arrest do not fulfill that definition. Such was defendant’s situation in this case, and the court finds a direct causal relationship between the violation of her Fourth Amendment liberty interests and the procurement of her incriminating statements. The police lacked probable cause necessary to justify defendant’s custodial interrogation at the moment they took her cell phone and personal effects, necessitating that the court suppress any statements made by her after that time.

The court, after carefully analyzing the interplay between the increasing pressure of police interrogation tactics and the defendant’s corresponding hesitancy to continue the interview, concludes that her unqualified statement, “I want to stop talking about it,” constituted an intentional and sufficiently clear demand to invoke her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Her words and the context of them revoked her previous waiver in a manner apparent to a reasonable person. Also, they conformed to an officer’s earlier explanation of how she could end questioning.

Other statements made by defendant soon after her contested utterance, such as, “I really need to go to sleep tonight,” “I’m just so overwhelmed,” and “Have you talked to my mom?” serve to confirm the court’s conclusion regarding the intent of her previous words.

Finding that defendant invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and that the detectives did not then cease questioning her, the court will suppress any statement made by her after that invocation.

Commonwealth v. Helvenston (Thomas, J.) No. CR09-2330, Dec. 17, 2009; Norfolk Cir.Ct.; James O. Broccoletti for defendant; Paula M. Bruns, Tanja M. Korpi, Office of Comm. Att’y. VLW 010-8-005, 19 pp.

VLW 010-8-005

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