Whenever police officers make an arrest, they immediately attempt to obtain a confession from the suspect. While most out-of-court statements constitute inadmissible hearsay and are not admissible in court, a defendant’s out-of-court statement is admissible as a “statement of a party opponent.” Therefore, if a defendant’s statement is lawfully obtained, the prosecutor will be permitted to repeat it to the jury. If the police do not obtain a statement in a lawful manner, the defendant can file a motion to suppress. If the judge agrees the police acted unlawfully, the prosecutor will be prohibited from presenting the defendant’s statement to the jury. In challenging the admissibility of a defendant’s statement, there are generally two avenues of attack: (1) a Miranda violation; or (2) a voluntariness problem.
In a case called Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court ruled that suspects in police custody must be advised of certain rights prior to questioning. Those rights are:
Defendants often complain they were not immediately advised of their Miranda warnings by the police. There is widespread confusion regarding when police officers are required to read suspects their Miranda rights. Miranda is required only prior to custodial interrogation. Therefore if a suspect is not in custody and is not being interrogated by the police, he is not entitled to receive his Miranda warnings.
When is a person in the custody of a law enforcement officer? A person is generally in custody whenever his freedom of movement has been significantly curtailed. Some common scenarios that do not constitute custody are: during the preliminary stages of a motor vehicle stop (including the administration of field sobriety tests during an OUI investigation); during the preliminary investigation of a motor vehicle accident; during a threshold inquiry involving a patfrisk; and during preliminary questioning that occurs at the scene of the crime. What factors do courts consider to determine whether a suspect is in custody?
A primary consideration is whether a suspect reasonably understood he was free to walk away from the police questioning. Therefore, an interrogation that occurs at a suspect’s house is more likely to be non-custodial than an interrogation that occurs at a police station or in the back of a police cruiser. However, even interrogations conducted in police stations are not necessarily custodial. Courts will consider whether the suspect went to the station on his own and whether there was any restraint on his movement (such as being handcuffed or locked in a cell). Questioning that occurs on the street is generally non-custodial unless the police specifically tell a suspect he cannot leave or take some action (such as chasing the suspect and ordering him to stop) that leads the suspect to reasonably believe he could not simply walk away from the police. If a suspect believed he was able to stop the questioning and leave the area of the interrogation, he was not in custody.
This factor considers how likely it is that a suspect will feel pressured into making a statement. For example, a person who is casually questioned on the street by a single police officer is less likely to feel he is in custody than a suspect who is being aggressively interrogated by multiple officers in a small room at the police station. Similarly, a suspect who is questioned for 10 minutes is less likely to believe he is in custody than a suspect who is questioned over the course of several hours.
If the police have informed an individual he is suspected of committing a crime, he is more likely to believe he is in custody. It doesn’t matter whether the cops privately believe the individual is guilty or not, as the question involves the suspect’s state of mind. This factor is related to the police officers’ level of aggressiveness in interrogating a suspect – if the cops are aggressive and tell the suspect they believe he has committed a crime, the suspect will likely think he is in police custody.
Even if a suspect is in police custody, he is not entitled to receive Miranda warnings unless police officers are interrogating him. Therefore, if a suspect blurts out a confession while handcuffed and riding in the cruiser to the police station, he cannot claim a Miranda violation. Interrogation obviously includes questioning, but it also includes any police conduct that is likely to elicit a response from the suspect. For example, telling a suspect that his co-conspirator already gave a full confession that implicated the suspect, or showing a defendant that drugs that were found in his apartment are the functional equivalent of verbal questioning. Both of those actions would tend to elicit a response from the suspect.
There is a very narrow exception to the requirement that Miranda warnings be given to suspects in custody who are being interrogated. If the public is potentially in danger and the police quickly need to ascertain information from a suspect, Miranda is not required. This exception is applicable most often when police demand to know where a gun or weapon has been hidden by a suspect who has been arrested.
A suspect’s statement that is not voluntary will not be admissible against him in court. It doesn’t matter if Miranda warnings were properly given and it doesn’t matter to whom the suspect made the statement (whether it was a police officer or a civilian). What constitutes a voluntary statement? In Massachusetts there are two requirements: (1) the suspect must not have been coerced into making the statement; and (2) the suspect must have been rational at the time the statement was made.
A statement is coerced if it was obtained through violence or a threat of violence. A statement also may be coerced if a police officer assured the suspect that the statement will help him in his upcoming trial, or that the suspect needs to make a statement immediately, or if an officer tricks the suspect into making the statement. In determining whether cops obtained a statement by way of coercion, courts consider a number of factors including the suspect’s age, intelligence, history of mental illness, drug or alcohol intoxication, and mastery of the English language.
A suspect’s statement is rational only if he is able to appreciate the consequences of making the statement. If a suspect is in the midst of a mental breakdown or is emotionally distraught, his statement might not be the product of rational thought. A suspect who is highly intoxicated also might not be rational, although courts are reluctant to conclude people under the influence of alcohol or drugs cannot make rational statements.
All involuntary statements are subject to suppression as are all statements obtained in violation of Miranda. If you have been charged with a crime and you made a statement to the police, you should immediately consult with an experienced Middlesex County criminal defense attorney to determine if your statements were properly obtained. We are also prepared to assist with motor vehicle stops and identification.