Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
State vs. Aziz (Appellate Division 2016)
In this case the defendant, whom the police were looking for due to his cell phone number recently showing up on a cell phone of a dead woman, was brought to the police department for questioning.
After the police took defendant into custody, he complained that he had not taken “his medication in a couple [of] days[.]” Although defendant appeared to be fine, Henderson and his partner, Detective Michael Manochio, arranged for the fire department to transport defendant to the hospital. The detectives stayed with defendant at the hospital for two hours. Henderson testified that, during that period, defendant “had a lot of questions” about the charges he was facing. However, Henderson told him, “we can’t talk to you here. We’ll talk to you back at our office.”
After hospital staff “cleared” defendant “medically[,]” Henderson and Manochio transported him to the prosecutor’s office for questioning, which began at 1:45 p.m. The detectives removed defendant’s handcuffs, gave defendant a blanket after he stated he was cold, and began talking to him in an interview room. Initially, the detectives asked defendant to confirm that they had spent the last two hours with him at the hospital; defendant had “tried” to ask them a number of questions there; and the detectives told defendant they would talk to him at the prosecutor’s office. The detectives then began to review defendant’s Miranda rights with him.
Henderson gave defendant an “Advisement of Constitutional Rights” form and asked him to read it out loud. The form had a space where defendant could indicate whether he understood that (1) he had the right to remain silent; (2) what he said could be used against him in a court of law; (3) he had the right to talk to an attorney and have the attorney present during questioning; (4) an attorney would be appointed for him if he could not afford one; and (5) he could decide at any time to exercise his Miranda rights and not answer any questions or make any statements. After he read each of his rights, defendant wrote “yes” on the form and initialed each answer, indicating that he understood his rights.
Henderson then asked defendant to read the portion of the form that asked defendant whether he agreed to waive his rights, make a statement, and answer questions. The form stated: “I have read this statement of my rights and I understand what my rights are. I am willing to make a statement and answer questions. No promises or threats have been made to me and no pressure or coercion of any kind has been used against me.”
When defendant finished reading this portion of the form aloud, Manochio and Henderson asked defendant if he understood the form. In response, defendant stated, “I understand it, but I, I don’t agree with it.” Manochio started to interject, but defendant continued by stating, “In, in, in, in total I don’t agree with it.”
Despite defendant’s clear disagreement with the entire waiver of rights statement, including the sentence that read, “I am willing to make a statement and answer questions[,]” Henderson asked defendant, “Well[,] what don’t you agree with?” Defendant replied, “Well[,] go ahead sir. I wanna hear you out.” Manochio told defendant, “Well no, we’re gonna read you, we’re gonna advise you of why you’re here . . . [a]nd you’re gonna let us know if you want to talk to us or not. . . . And that’s it. It’s not brain surgery.” Defendant replied, “No, no I know that but it’s just the wording of it seems so,” but Manochio interrupted by asking, “Do you understand it, you don’t understand it or?” In response, defendant twice stated, “I understand it.”
Manochio told defendant, “You could talk to us and mid-way through whenever you want, you could decide to stop or keep going, it’s up to you. Those are your constitutional rights.” At this point, Henderson again joined the conversation, and harkened back to defendant’s previous desire to learn more about the pending charges. Henderson stated, ”
[Rem]ember you said you had questions you know and I told you, . . . we would answer all your questions.” Manochio reinforced this theme by stating, “For us to talk to you, . . . you don’t have to agree with us and again we could start talking to you[.]” In response, defendant stated, “I mean what’s done is done so.” The detectives then proceeded to question defendant about the events of July 11, 2011. During the course of the interrogation, defendant admitted to shooting the victim in the head with a gun that he then discarded.
As a result, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the statement he gave after his Miranda Warnings were given. After examining the facts, the court examined the law regarding what are the police’s responsibilities when they have an arrestee in their custody and are. The familiar Miranda warnings are intended to combat the inherent coerciveness of custodial interrogation. State v. P.Z., 152 N.J. 86, 101-02 (1997). Under Miranda, before commencing a police interrogation, the police must advise the suspect that he [or she] has the right to remain silent, that anything he [or she] says can be used against him [or her] in a court of law, that he [or she] has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he [or she] cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him [or her] prior to any questioning if he [or she] so desires. [Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 479, 86 S. Ct. at 1630, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 726.] The warnings are designed to assure that the waiver of the fundamental right to remain silent is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. Id. at 444, 86 S. Ct. at 1612, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 707.
“Once warnings have been given, the subsequent procedure is clear. If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he [or she] wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.” Id. at 473-74; 86 S. Ct. at 1627, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 723. After it is invoked, the defendant’s right to remain silent must be “scrupulously honored.” State v. Johnson, 120 N.J. 263, 282 (1990). Otherwise, “any statement taken after the [defendant] invokes his [or her] privilege cannot be other than the product of compulsion, subtle or otherwise.” Miranda supra, 384 U.S. at 474; 86 S. Ct. at 1628, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 723.
“[A] request to terminate an interrogation must be honored ‘however ambiguous.‘” State v. Bey, 112 N.J. 45, 64-65 (1988) (quoting State v. Kennedy, 97 N.J. 278, 288 (1984)). In determining a suspect’s meaning, “a minute parsing of the words used,” in isolation, may lead to an inaccurate conclusion. State v. Alston, 204 N.J. 614, 627 (2011). On the other hand, a court must be mindful that “suspects do not, and cannot be expected to, ‘speak with the discrimination of an Oxford don.'” Ibid. (quoting Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 459, 114 S. Ct. 2350, 2355, 129 L. Ed. 2d 362, 371 (1994)). Thus, a defendant is “not required to express his [or her] desire with the utmost of legal precision.” Bey, supra, 112 N.J. at 65. As the Court noted in Bey, however, if a “defendant’s conduct and remarks are . . . equivocal, and the police [are] reasonably . . . unsure of [the] defendant’s wishes,” they may ask the defendant “to [clarify] the meaning of his [or her] statements.” Id. at 65 n.10. The officers’ questions must be “narrowly restricted” to this purpose. Ibid.; see also Alston, supra, 204 N.J. at 623 (quoting Johnson, supra, 120 N.J. at 283) (holding that where a suspect’s request for an attorney is ambiguous, the police may seek clarification so long as the clarifying questions do not “delay, confuse, or burden the suspect in his assertion of his rights”).
ANALYSIS OF LAW TO THESE FACTS
Due to the defendant’s equivocating communications about what he understood and did not understand, when the police continued to question him and press him, they had violated his Miranda and Bey constitutional rights. He as not required to speak perfectly, or communicate with legal ease that he was asserting his constitutional rights. Rather, because he continued to communicate his lack of understanding, the court found he was attempting to assert his rights which were not honored by the police.
The “waiver of rights” portion of the form contained the statement, “I am willing to make a statement and answer questions.” After he read this waiver statement, defendant unambiguously stated, “I understand it, but I, I don’t agree with it.” That statement was an unequivocal refusal to waive his right to be silent.
If there were any doubt about his intention, defendant immediately reasserted, “in total I don’t agree with it.” (emphasis added). Because defendant clearly advised the detectives that he did not agree with any part of the waiver provision, they were required to immediately honor his request and cease the interrogation. Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 474, 86 S. Ct. at 1628, 16 L. Ed. 2d at 723. Because they did not, defendant’s statement must be suppressed. Even if defendant’s refusal to agree with the waiver statement was unclear, which it was not, the questions the detectives asked him went beyond “clarifying” whether defendant intended to invoke his right to remain silent. Bey, supra, 112 N.J. at 65 n.10. Although Manochio asked defendant if he understood his right to remain silent, which defendant repeatedly said he did, neither detective asked defendant whether, by saying he did not agree with the waiver statement, he intended to invoke his right to remain silent. Instead, Henderson told defendant that, if defendant spoke to the detectives, they would be able to answer the questions defendant had at the hospital about the pending charges. Manochio also advised defendant that “[f]or us to talk to you . . . you don’t have to agree with us and again we could start talking to you[.]”
Thus, rather than clarifying defendant’s intent, the detectives’ statements were designed to induce him to give a statement in spite of his clear statement that he did not agree to do so. At the very least, Manochio’s statement was confusing, because it could readily be understood to mean that. Under the totality of these circumstances, we conclude that defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights were not scrupulously honored. Therefore, defendant’s motion to suppress his recorded statement should have been granted. Because it was not, we are constrained to reverse.