It is nearly universally understood that before police can extract a confession, the criminal suspect has to be informed of his constitutional rights, particularly the right to a lawyer and to remain silent. Less known is that "Miranda Rights" only apply to custodial interrogations where the suspect is not free to leave. However, the courts have routinely held since the Miranda decision that a criminal suspect must be informed of his rights to counsel, to remain silent and other constitutional protections before an interrogation and that such warnings are an "absolute prerequisite" to any such custodial questioning. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 US 436. Also see Florida v. Powell (2010) 559 US 50.
However, over the last few years the courts have began chipping away at Miranda and upholding convictions based in whole or in part on confessions made in the absence of the Miranda warning. See this blog August 15, 2012.
The Ninth Circuit has just handed down a decision that seems in conflict with the Supreme Court ruling in Miranda. At issue before the court was a criminal conviction in California state court for certain violent crimes including robbery and murder. Before her arrest, Stacey Dyer's apartment had been searched in connection with a kidnapping and murder investigation. Dyer was placed in a police squad car while the police searched her apartment pursuant to a valid search warrant. After being locked in the police car for more than an hour Dyer "agreed" to speak to the police at the local station. She was placed in a small room about 15 feet by 15 feet, with a table and chairs and was interviewed for almost four hours sometime after midnight. After the first hour and a half, she denied the allegations made by the police that she was involved in a robbery and kidnapping. She finally relented and admitted to participating in the crimes that did lead to a murder.
Dyer was never advised of her Miranda rights before or during the questioning or before she made the confession. Before trial Dyer, through her attorney asked to have her confession suppressed as it was made in violation of Miranda. The trial court denied the motion and a jury eventually convicted Dyer based in large part on her confession.
The Ninth Circuit has upheld the conviction holding that Dyer was not in custody at the time of her confession. Specifically, in what is nebulous reasoning the court said "We think that a fair-minded jurist could, on this record, find that Dyer was not in custody, because many presumably fair-minded jurists have indeed so found [on similar] facts," including that Dyer came to the station voluntarily, was allowed bathroom breaks and was never told she was not free to leave. Dyer v. Hornbeck (2013) 2013 US App Lexis 2557.
In the opinion of this San Jose criminal defense attorney, the Ninth Circuit's holding violates the tenets of Miranda established decades ago. Miranda specifically held: ""the prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination," including an admonishment of her rights. Miranda at 444.
Holding that Dyer was not in custody during the four hour interrogation is a hard notion to grasp. She was told to sit in a squad car for an hour, and then brought to a police station, led to a small room and was questioned for nearly four hours. Under the totality of the circumstances would a reasonable person in this situation feel free to get up and leave? The answer is a resounding no. Not being told you are not free to go does not mean you feel free to go. Allowing bathroom breaks is a biological necessity. Lastly, agreeing to be transferred to the police station after being detained for an hour in a police car may not be so voluntary as the court assumes.
This was a four hour confrontation between police investigators and a citizen, protected under the law. It goes without saying that Miranda v. Arizona and it progeny demand a criminal suspect in such a situation be afforded her rights before any statements are given.