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  • Jim Chapman

A Drunken Miranda Waiver is Still a Waiver

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In September 2019, staff at a hotel in Camdenton, Missouri, called the police about an occupant who refused to leave the property. Thereafter, Camdenton Police Officer Nicholas Thomas arrived. The staff told Officer Thomas that they smelled marijuana coming from Defendant Anthony Martinez Harris’ room. Through an open door into Harris’ hotel room, Officer Thomas saw money on the bed and white powder on the coffee table. Accordingly, Officer Thomas detained Harris and tried to give Miranda warnings to Harris. Harris responded that he did not understand the Miranda warnings, and so, Officer Thomas explained the warnings to him. Harris then replied that he understood. Before Officer Thomas said anything else, Harris offered Officer Thomas $50,000 to let him go and said that he was involved with “the cartel” and with “MS-13.” Officer Thomas did not accept Harris’ officer and, instead, searched the hotel room.

Soon, Camden County Deputy Sheriff Brian Bonner arrived. Deputy Bonner asked Harris what was in the room, and Harris replied that there was meth, cocaine, heroin, and PCP. Harris also consented to a search of the room. As a result of the search, Officers found cash, guns, drugs, and drug paraphernalia. The officers also found an object wrapped in a piece of camouflage fabric. Harris volunteered that the object was C-4 explosive. Officer Thomas then took Harris to the county jail.

Before Officer Thomas transported Harris to jail, Narcotics Group Task Force Officer Bryan Pratt arrived at the hotel. Officer Pratt found a Kia key in Harris’ pocket that matched a stolen car in the hotel parking lot. Officer Pratt searched the Kia and found more drug contraband.


Accordingly, Officer Pratt went to the jail to meet with Harris. Officer Harris began his conversation with Harris by advising Harris of his Miranda rights. However, Harris would not answer “yes” or “no” that he understood his rights, and so, Officer Pratt did not ask any questions of Harris. Instead, Officer Pratt told Harris that the keys found in Harris’ pocket belonged to a stolen car. Harris then replied that the Kia was his car.

Thereafter, Harris was charged with intent to distribute 500 or more grams of methamphetamine in violation of federal law. Before trial, Harris moved to suppress the statements that he had made to Officer Thomas and to Officer Bonner at the hotel. Harris also moved to suppress the statements that he had made to Officer Pratt at the jail, i.e., that the Kia belonged to him. At the suppression hearing, all three officers testified that Harris was not intoxicated at the time that he made these statements to them.


After the suppression hearing, a Magistrate Judge with the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri found that the officers’ testimony was credible. As a result, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the District Court deny Harris’ motion to suppress because the Magistrate Judge found that some of Harris’ statements were not made in response to an interrogation and others were made after a valid Miranda waiver.


Harris objected to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation and asked the District Court to re-open the hearing so that he could introduce evidence that he was, in fact, intoxicated. But, the District Court denied Harris’ request, adopted the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, and denied Harris’ motion to suppress.


At trial, the Government introduced the incriminating statements. A jury found Harris guilty, and the District Court sentenced Harris to 262 months of imprisonment. Harris timely appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


On appeal, Harris argued that the District Court committed reversible error in denying his motion to suppress because his Miranda waiver was not voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently made. The Eighth Circuit disagreed.


Initially, the Eighth Circuited noted that the District Court had found that some of Harris’ statements were not subject to a Miranda review because the statements were made spontaneously and not in response to questioning. This included Harris’ comments to Officer Thomas at the hotel that he was involved with the cartel and with MS-13 and that he would give Officer Thomas $50,000 to let him go. The Eight Circuit found that the District Court did not err in finding that these statements were spontaneous, volunteered, and not in response to interrogation. As such, the statements were admissible regardless of Harris’ Miranda waiver.


As for the rest of Harris’ statements that he had made at the hotel room, the Eighth Circuit held that Harris’ argument was insufficient to overturn his conviction. Harris argued that he was too intoxicated to waive his Miranda rights, and he asserted that the District Court’s finding that his waiver was voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently made was based on clearly erroneous factual findings. Harris based this argument, in part, on the trial testimony of the police officers and others, who testified that Harris showed signs that he was on drugs. The Government argued that, because Harris did not renew his motion to suppress at trial, he had failed to preserve the issue, and the plain error standard of review applied.


The Eight Circuit declined to decide which standard applied to Harris’ argument because the argument failed under either standard. Harris argued that his incriminating statements demonstrated a substantial level of intoxication because no sober person facing criminal liability would make them to law enforcement. But, the Eight Circuit opined that intoxication alone does not preclude a valid waiver. Instead, the test is whether, considering the totality of the circumstances, the mental impairment caused the defendant’s will to be overborne.


Here, the Eighth Circuit held that Harris’ intoxication did not cause his will to be overborne. At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the District Court found that Harris was “alert, aware of his criminal liability, and appropriately responding to questions” while talking with the officers. The District Court credited the officers’ testimony that Harris “appeared coherent and did not tell them that he was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.” Instead, Harris’ behavior was “consistent with someone who understood the nature of his crimes,” and he “did not appear to be intoxicated.” The District Court also noted that Harris’ extensive criminal history—including five arrests and convictions—supported this conclusion. As a result, the Eight Circuit concluded that the District Court did not err in finding a lack of evidence that Harris’ alleged intoxication caused his will to be overborne.

Finally, Harris argued that his statement at the jail to Officer Pratt about the Kia being his should have been suppressed because the statement was made after he had invoked his Miranda rights. But as the District Court recognized, invoking the right to remain silent requires a clear, consistent expression of a desire to remain silent. The District Court found that the record did not reflect that Harris unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent during his brief conversation with Officer Pratt. On the contrary, Officer Pratt testified that, after reading his Miranda rights to Harris, Harris indicated that he wanted to talk to Officer Pratt but, then, kept going “back and forth” on that issue. Based upon this testimony, the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court did not err in determining that Harris did not unequivocally invoke his right to remain silent, nor did the District Court err in admitting Harris’ incriminating statements at trial. The Eighth Circuit also held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in not re-opening the suppression hearing in order to allow Harris an opportunity to offer evidence that he was intoxicated in support of his motion to suppress. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s suppression order, Harris’ conviction, and Harris’ sentence. United States v. Harris, 64 F.4th 999 (8th Cir. 2023).

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