DISTRICT COURT HOLDS THAT, EVEN THOUGH POLICE OFFICERS FAILED TO PROVIDE THE DEFENDANT WITH HIS MIRANDA WARNINGS BEFORE INTERROGATING HIM, THE DEFENDANT’S ANSWERS TO THE OFFICERS’ QUESTIONS WERE NOT COERCED AND WOULD NOT BE SUPPRESSED
By Jim Chapman, Attorney, Public Agency Training Council
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In United States v. Reyes, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2016 WL 4273417 (D. Kan. Aug. 15, 2016), the United States District Court for the District of Kansas denied the Defendant Jesus Reyes’ motion to suppress even though the District Court found that the police officers had failed to issue Reyes’ his Miranda warnings before interrogating him. The District Court concluded that, even though the officers failed to issue Reyes’ the Miranda warnings, Reyes’ responses to the officers’ questions were not coerced, and therefore, there was no basis to suppress his voluntary statements.
On May 28, 2015, Officer Christopher Hornberger and Officer Jared Henry of the Wichita Police Department received a tip that drug activity had been occurring at a Wichita duplex. Specifically, Officer Hornberger heard reports that a Hispanic male was dealing drugs from the duplex. The following day, the officers parked near the duplex and observed a white SUV in the driveway. Eventually, the SUV backed out of the driveway and left the duplex, and the officers followed. The officers admitted at an evidentiary hearing that they were hoping that the driver would commit a traffic violation so that they could investigate the reports of drug activity.
After a short time, the driver of the SUV activated his turn signal and executed a right turn. Officer Hornberger estimated that the SUV was 20 feet away from the intersection when the driver activated the turn signal. Officer Henry estimated that turn signal was activated 50 feet from the intersection. In any event, the officers executed a traffic stop for failing to signal 100 feet before turning as required by Kansas law.
The SUV was already stopped when Officer Hornberger activated the emergency lights, and so, the officers exited their vehicle. But then, the SUV slowly rolled down the road and pulled into a parking lot before coming to a complete stop. Surprised by the driver’s actions, the officers got back into their cruiser and approached the SUV. Reyes was revealed as the driver of the SUV. The officers ordered Reyes out of the vehicle and patted him down for weapons. The officers, then, asked for Reyes’ driver’s license, and he responded that it was suspended. At that point, Reyes was taken into custody for driving on a suspended license. Officer Hornberger, then, asked Reyes for consent to search the SUV which Reyes denied. As a result, Officer Henry radioed for a canine unit to come sniff the vehicle for drugs.
Around this time, Reyes asked the officers if his girlfriend could come take the car. Upon hearing this question, Officer Henry said something to the effect of: “you seem pretty nervous about getting the car out of there, makes me think that there’s something illegal in the car.” In response, Reyes told Officer Henry that there was a “blunt” on the floorboard. Reyes had not yet been advised of any of his Miranda rights. After Reyes made this statement, the officers called off the previously-requested canine unit.
Based on Reyes’ statement, Officer Henry looked through the passenger window and observed a brown-rolled cigarette on the floorboard that he believed was the blunt Reyes had mentioned. Officer Henry, then, entered the SUV, confirmed that the cigarette contained marijuana, and searched the rest of the vehicle. Inside the vehicle, Officer Henry found two firearms and two bags containing methamphetamine.
Subsequently, Reyes was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and with possession of methamphetamine with the intent to sell. Reyes moved to suppress the Government’s evidence, arguing that the car stop and search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Reyes also argued that the physical evidence recovered from the search of his SUV should be suppressed as fruits of a Miranda violation.
In denying Reyes’ motion, the District Court explained that a traffic stop is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and, thus, is only constitutional if it is reasonable. A traffic stop is justified when police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Therefore, the District Court limited its inquiry into whether the officers had a reasonable suspicion that Reyes violated any applicable traffic or equipment regulations. As long as the officers could articulate specific facts that give rise to such a violation, the stop is justified. The District Court explained that the propriety of a stop does not depend on whether the suspect is actually guilty of committing a traffic offense; rather, the relevant question is whether it was reasonable for the officers to believe the offense had been committed.
At the hearing, both officers testified that, based on their observations, Reyes failed to signal more than 100 feet before he made a right turn. As a result, the officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion to believe Reyes had violated Kansas law. Reyes argued that the turn signal violation was merely a pretext, and in fact, Officer Henry admitted as much. However, the District Court held that the pretext argument is no grounds for suppression because the constitutional reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on an officer’s actual motivations. The inquiry is entirely objective, and the officers had an objectively reasonable articulable suspicion that Reyes committed a turn signal violation. So at its inception, the traffic stop was justified.
The District Court further concluded that the officers were justified in ordering Reyes to step out of the vehicle; they were permitted to ask Reyes for his driver’s license; and once it was clear that Reyes was driving on a suspended license, the officers were justified in taking him into custody for that offense. Accordingly, the District Court held that the traffic stop and subsequent detention were reasonable and did not violate any of Reyes’ rights.
After Reyes was taken into custody, the officers searched his car. The District Court determined that Officer Henry had probable cause to search the vehicle because Reyes admitted that there was a blunt in the car. Reyes argued that the evidence recovered from the search should be suppressed because probable cause to search arose from an illegally obtained statement as he claimed that his statement was the result of a custodial interrogation before he was advised of his Miranda rights.
The District Court agreed with Reyes that Officer Henry violated Miranda. The District Court acknowledged that any confession that is obtained during a custodial interrogation cannot be used unless the Government can demonstrate that the suspect was informed of his Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent. There was no dispute that Reyes had not been advised of his Miranda rights and was in custody at the time he made the challenged statement. Therefore, the District Court focused its attention on whether Reyes’ statement was the result of an interrogation.
The District Court noted that Miranda covers more than just questions; Miranda safeguards come into play whenever a person in custody is subjected to either express questioning or its functional equivalent. Moreover, interrogation refers not only to questioning but also to any words or actions on the part of the police that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. This inquiry primarily focuses on the perceptions of the suspect and not on the intent of the police. In fact, an interrogation can occur without the use of questions.
Accordingly, a court is more likely to find that an interrogation occurred when the officer makes an accusatory statement that is unprovoked by the suspect. On the other hand, a court is less likely to find that an interrogation occurred when the officer is simply responding to questions advanced by the suspect.
In this case, the District Court found that Officer Henry’s statement that he believed that Reyes had something illegal in the SUV was accusatory. Officer Henry even testified that his statement could be taken as accusatory in nature. Officer Henry’s statement was not made in response to a question posed by Reyes; it was more or less unprovoked. By positing Reyes’ guilt, Officer Henry’s statement was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. As such, it was an interrogation in violation of Miranda.
Nevertheless, the District Court refused to suppress Reyes’ statements because the failure to provide Miranda warnings warnings is not a violation of a suspect’s constitutional rights. The Constitution is only violated upon the admission of the improperly elicited statements at trial. Thus, the District Court held that the exclusion of such statements is a complete and sufficient remedy for Miranda violations. The District Court explained that Reyes’ statement about having a blunt in his SUV cannot be used against him at trial, but with respect to the failure to provide Miranda warnings, there is no reason to apply the fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine. So, physical evidence that is the fruit of a voluntary statement should not be suppressed even if the statement was elicited without a Miranda warning.
In sum, the law only requires the exclusion of coerced statements. Even though Officer Henry violated Miranda by interrogating Reyes while he was in custody, there is no evidence that Reyes was coerced. Accordingly, the District Court declined to suppress the evidence against Reyes despite the failure to provide Miranda warnings.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.