Don’t Wait on Miranda to Protect You

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

State v. Monterotorivo, is an appeal decided by the Appellate Division on June 16th, concerning a motion to suppress evidence in the form of defendant’s statements to police officers. The case arose out of an incident where defendant allegedly stated publicly that he intended to kill an individual for blocking his driveway, and then rammed his car into him while he was a pedestrian. When officers responded to the scene they believed they were responding to a typical vehicle crash, and not necessarily a criminal act. Although all vehicle crashes have the potential to involve criminal activity when police first arrive they do so under their community caretaker function. When the officer arrived at the scene he began asking what happened, but the defendant’s English was limited and no officer on the scene was able to speak Spanish. As a result there was some confusion with the defendant’s answers to the questions presented and according to the officer’s testimony he had to ask the defendant to repeat his answers several times. No Miranda rights were read at the time those statements were made.

Miranda rights usually follow the following format:

  1. You have the right to remain silent
  2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
  3. You have the right to an attorney
  4. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you

The first two warnings refer to the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination commonly called “pleading the fifth.” In this context the 5th Amendment protects people from making incriminating statements to police. Warnings (3) and (4) refer to the 5th Amendment right to an attorney during custodial detention, also designed to protect the potential defendant from making incriminating statements. This right to an attorney is distinguished from the 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel which is triggered once criminal proceedings begin. It is very important to understand two points. Firstly, you have the right to remain silent at any point in an interaction with a police officer, regardless of whether a detention has occurred. Secondly, a custodial detention does not always coincide with an arrest. Your Miranda rights are triggered the moment you are no longer free to leave, with at least one exception.

In this case the defendant was required to remain at the scene of the car crash because that is standard procedure, but he was not yet in custodial detention because the officer was under the impression he was simply investigating a fairly routine crash. Therefore, both the trial court and the Appellate Division found the defendant was not in custody, and therefore his Miranda rights were not violated. But, the trial court still granted the motion to suppress incriminating statements made prior to any detention for the following two reasons:

  1. There was other evidence available from eyewitnesses that was far more incriminating
  2. The language barrier created too much confusion to ensure the reliability of the statements

The Appellate Division found the trial judge stepped into the shoes of the jury when he determined the credibility of the defendant’s statements, as well as the officer’s own understanding of those statements. On a motion to suppress, it is not the judge’s job to determine the credibility of evidence, or compare it to other evidence, but rather in this context the only issue that mattered was whether custodial interrogation occurred, and if so whether a statement was given “voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.”

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