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Perspectives: Miranda still matters much in Minnesota

The Miranda warnings “have become part of our national culture.”

Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428 (2000)(Rehnquist, C. J.)

It barely took three months following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court last summer diluting the Miranda doctrine for the Minnesota appellate courts to weigh in with a couple of rulings last fall involving custodial warnings for criminal suspects.

Near the end of its tumultuous 2021-2022 term, the high court ruled in Tekoh v. Vega, 142 S.Ct. 2095 (2022), that the “warning” principles enunciated in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) do not apply to civil cases involving the failure of the law enforcement personnel to provide Miranda admonitions before engaging in interrogation of a criminal suspect in custody.

In the Tekoh case, the court treated Miranda as a “rule,” providing guidance to law enforcement personnel, rather than a constitutional “requirement,” as expressed in the majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, which drew a sharp dissenting opinion from the three liberals. Authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the dissent pointed out that the vitality of the Miranda decision, which had been confirmed by the justices in Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428 (2000), on a decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Although a longtime Miranda critic, the chief, presumably a devotee of television cop shows, noted that the Miranda warnings had been woven into “our national culture.”

The Miranda tenet was bolstered by the high court’s ruling in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) which requires police to cease any custodial interrogation when a suspect invokes Fifth Amendment right to counsel, unless the suspect initiates further conversations with police or has a lawyer present.

But that precept gave way to the majority’s dismissive treatment of Miranda in the Tekoh case, which could portend the dismantling of Miranda in ensuing criminal litigation.

The Tekoh ruling in a civil context constitutes a significant dilution of that ruling and may presage its ultimate demise in ensuing criminal litigation. See “Perspectives, Civil ruling may portend Miranda’s demisein the Sept. 22, 2022, edition of Minnesota Lawyer.

But the Miranda tenets established 57 years ago still remain intact in criminal law, as reflected in a pair of recent rulings of Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals addressing issues under the Miranda doctrine. In one case, the Supreme Court rejected a claimed Miranda transgression, while in the other, the Court of Appeals, in a rare criminal law reversal, overturned a lower court decision on grounds of failure to adhere to the Miranda warnings

The cases indicate that, despite being on shaky grounds, Miranda still matters much in Minnesota.

‘Imminent’ insufficient

That a custodial interrogation may be “imminent,” but not yet in effect is insufficient to invoke the Miranda warnings, according to a ruling of the Minnesota Supreme Court in Charette v. State, 980 N.W.2d 310 (Minn. Oct. 5, 2022).

The case was before the justices on a motion for post-conviction relief by a defendant who had been found guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree arson based, in part, on statements he made to law enforcement officers without being given Miranda warnings. His post-conviction plea was rebuffed by the Clay County District Court and the Court of Appeals, on different grounds. The trial court opined that he was not subject to custodial interrogation, which is a requirement to trigger Miranda warnings, while the Court of Appeals felt that his “mere outbursts” about wanting a lawyer after he was in custody by the police were not sufficient to invoke the right to counsel.

The Supreme Court affirmed, on the same grounds as the district court, holding that because there was “no custodial interrogation’ at the time the defendant’s problematic statements were made, no Miranda violation occurred.

The defendant had been held overnight in jail after a body was found in a house in Moorhead that was set ablaze. The defendant was apprehended as a “person of interest,” during the ensuing investigation. The day after he had been brought into an interview room by the police, told that he was not being arrested for that incident, but was under arrest for a different incident relating to pending criminal charges in Fargo for unrelated assault and battery that had occurred the previous day.

During that session, despite his pleas that he did “want a lawyer,” he gave information that did not incriminate himself directly. But he provided the name of two witnesses when later testifying at trial, contradicted his statement, which helped convict him. That formed the basis for his contention that the identity of the witnesses was the “illegal fruits” of his statement and should have been suppressed because they were the product of a Miranda violation.

The case turned on whether the statement was admissible even though he was not subject to interrogation for that offense at the time he made it. The defendant sought the court to allow invocation of Fifth Amendment right to counsel when custodial interrogation is “imminent,” even though it has not yet occurred.

But the Supreme Court was not buying this “new rule of law,” pointing out that its federal counterpart “has never held that defendants can assert their Fifth Amendment rights when interrogation is imminent.” While some federal and state courts have done so, the Minnesota justices refused to follow that path because adopting a so-called “imminent interrogation” rule to invoke Miranda rights poses serious “practical difficulties.” It would be difficult for a law enforcement officer to determine when an interrogation becomes “imminent,” creating a lack of clarity that conflicts with the preference of the U.S. Supreme Court for “bright line rules” in Miranda cases. Because the “boundaries of ‘imminent’ are not defined,” the court was unwilling to adopt that principle. It opted, instead, to adhere to the principle that the Miranda doctrine only applies when a defendant is subject to “any compulsion or coercion” or some evidence of “psychological ploys” by law enforcement personnel.

In sum, because the defendant was not “subjected to custodial interrogation,” his rights did not attach under Miranda or Edwards, validating the decision of the trial court to deny post-conviction relief.

Rare reversal

While most appellate court decisions, like Charette, involving Miranda issues turn out unfavorably to defendants, a rare reversal by the Court of Appeals of a trial court decision refusing to invoke Miranda suppression occurred in State v. LaBarge, 2022 WL 4682925 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 3, 2022)(unpublished). The appeal challenged an aiding and abetting second-degree murder conviction by a defendant who sought to suppress incriminating statements he made during an interrogation by Bloomington detective who suspected him of collaborating with his half-brother in killing a man, who had a romantic relationship with the half-brother’s girlfriend.

While answering questions during a police interrogation, the defendant twice made reference to a lawyer, which went for naught. The questioning continued, preceding a third request for a lawyer that led to cessation of questioning before the defendant declined counsel and then continued to respond to the interrogation, although he stated that had he known that he was suspected of murder, “I would have asked for a lawyer to be present.” His motion to suppress the statements he provided to the detectives was denied by Hennepin County District Court, which found him guilty in a stipulated evidence trial. It sentenced him to 20 months in prison.

The Court of Appeals reversed, even though the police had provided the defendant with Miranda warnings and he voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived his rights before answering these questions. But his subsequent request to invoke his right to counsel should have caused cessation of the interrogation at that point, rather than continuing the inquiry.

It was erroneous for the police officers to persist because they should have stopped questioning and clarify if the defendant was requesting an attorney, rather than continuing the interrogation and attempting to “convince [him] that he had already waived his right” to an attorney. The colloquy between the defendant, as a suspect, and the cops, invoked the “stop-and-clarify” rule, which should be broadly applied. The court has previously done so under the state constitution, which “provides suspects greater protection against compelled self-incrimination that required under the U.S. Constitution.” Because the defendant’s statements about wanting a lawyer were subject to reasonable construction that he wanted legal counsel, the questioning should have stopped and his request clarified. Since the detectives did not do so, admission of the defendant’s statements during the interrogation was “error.” Because the prosecution and defense had agreed that the outcome of this appeal would be dispositive, the determination in favor of the defendant that his Miranda rights were violated warranted reversing the conviction.

The old saying that “silence is golden” may be true. But when it comes to Miranda warnings, it could be that the U.S. Supreme Court is headed in the direction that “silence is olden.” Nevertheless, as this couple of cases reflect, the Miranda doctrine remains applicable and viable in the criminal law in Minnesota.


Equivocal remarks in Minnesota cases

  • State v. Doughty, (1991): “Shouldn’t I have a lawyer so you don’t ask me any illegal questions?” invokes Miranda.
  • State v. Pilcher, (1991): Talking continuously during interrogation after asking about whether an attorney should be present constitutes Miranda waiver.
  • State v. Hale, (1990): Fleeting comment about future need for lawyer does not trigger Miranda.
  • State v. Campbell, (1985): The cessationof further questioning while having “full appreciation” of Miranda rights precludes suppression.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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