PA Superior Court: Defendant Not In Custody Despite Reading of Miranda Warnings During Police Station Interrogation

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coleman, holding that a defendant is not in custody for purposes of Miranda just because the police read him his Miranda warnings in a police station. This case rejects the fundamental right to counsel as well as the obvious reality that a suspect in a murder/arson investigation who has been escorted to the police station and given his Miranda warnings would assume that he or she is not free to leave and is instead under arrest.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Coleman

On March 30, 2017, the Farrell Police Department was investigating an arson that caused the death of a woman. The police suspected that the defendant was involved. Based on these suspicions, the police went to the defendant’s mother’s home in Farrell, Pennsylvania. The police arrived at the residence armed, but they were not wearing their uniforms. After they identified themselves as police officers, they asked the defendant if he could talk, and the defendant allowed the officers to inside the home. Once inside, the officers told the defendant they wanted to speak with him at the nearby police station, which was about 150 yards away. The defendant responded that he would come to the police station later when he could get a ride because it was raining at the time. When the officers offered him a ride, the defendant agreed and grabbed his insulin kit.

The defendant entered the officers’ unmarked car without being handcuffed. He was not frisked, handcuffed, or restrained when he entered the car. After the two-minute drive, they arrived at the police station. The two officers, along with the defendant, walked inside the building which also contained a regional lockup facility. While walking through the facility, they walked past jail cells and eventually entered an interview room. When the defendant entered the room he was still not restrained. The officers subsequently informed him that he was free to leave at any time and permitted him to keep and use his overcoat, hat, and insulin kit.

At some point, the officers then activated the audio/video recording system and read the defendant his Miranda rights. The defendant did not sign the officers’ waiver form. The officers then began asking the defendant about the previously-mentioned arson. After about one minute, the defendant explained that he did not have anything to say about the arson. Per the Pennsylvania Superior Court, he “explicitly, clearly, and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police.” Despite this clear assertion of his rights, the police officers ignored his statement and continued speaking to him. They reiterated to the defendant that he was not in custody and was free to leave at any time. The officers then advised the defendant that he was a suspect, along with another individual. The officers told the defendant that they wanted to show him some photos “to see if it changed his mind.” They then showed the defendant blown-up photographs of the crime scene and the victim’s body. They also showed video from a local gas station where the defendant and the other suspect obtained gasoline. Finally, they told the defendant “disturbing details about the burnt corpse and emphasized that the victim’s children did not have a mother.”

Despite all of this, the defendant continued to deny involvement in the crime. The officers then produced a photograph of the other suspect and explained that they heard that the defendant had started the fire. They further told the defendant that “you know who did this, and whoever comes in first, that is how the story will be told.” In response to this, the defendant “started to reveal names and information about a vehicle and who the owner of the vehicle was and where that individual lived, and eventually told the police that he pointed out the house that he thought the alleged target lived in and that the [other suspect] lit the place up.” The officers then gave the defendant some paper in case he wanted to make a statement and then left the room for three minutes. While the officers were not in the room, the defendant used his insulin kit. He declined to provide a written statement. After the officers returned to the room they arrested him. He was subsequently charged with second-degree murder, aggravated arson, and other related offenses.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress his statements to the police. On October 4, 2017, a hearing was held. The testimony at the motions hearing was consistent with the above-mentioned facts. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress. The trial court found that he “clearly and unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent after he was given his Miranda warnings.” The court observed that the officers ignored his invocation of his right to remain silent so that they could elicit incriminating statements, but the trial court did not find that the defendant was subjected to custodial interrogation. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

What happens if the police do not give Miranda warnings?

Miranda warnings are a frequently misunderstood issue in criminal law. Many people assume that police are required to read Miranda warnings to a suspect anytime they make an arrest or the case will be dismissed. This is not correct. Instead, Miranda is only relevant in a criminal case when a defendant makes a statement in response to questioning by a government official while the defendant was in custodial detention. If a defendant voluntarily blurts out an incriminating statement, then he or she will not be able to argue that this statement should be suppressed because the police failed to give the Miranda warnings. Further, if the police detain someone for an “investigatory detention,” rather than a custodial detention, then the police are not necessarily required to provide Miranda warnings prior to asking questions. For this reason, police do not typically have to provide Miranda warnings during many routine traffic stops. Traffic stops, however, can rise to the level of an arrest, and at that point, the police would be required to provide warnings.

Determining whether a statement should be suppressed because of the failure to administer Miranda warnings is a very fact intensive analysis. First, a court must look and see whether the question or statement made by the police itself was reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response. Usually, this is the least complicated part of the analysis. If a cop asks a defendant “if they did it” or “why did you do it” then those questions are reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response.

The issue that is more complicated is whether the defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda. When these motions are litigated, defense attorneys will routinely ask questions such as: whether the defendant was in handcuffs; whether the officers were uniformed; whether the officers’ guns were visible; the length of the interrogation; the method of questioning; whether the door was closed; whether the defendant was offered anything to eat; etc. By doing this, the defense attorney is trying to establish that the defendant’s liberty was so restrained that he was in custody for purposes of Miranda. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court will make a finding based on the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the defendant’s statement should be suppressed. If the court grants a defendant’s motion to suppress it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that the case will be dismissed. It only means that the Commonwealth cannot use the defendant’s statement in its case-in-chief. For a more detailed analysis on when the police are required to administer Miranda warnings, please see our blog “What Happens if the Police Don’t Give Miranda Warnings?”    

Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds That the Defendant’s Statement Was Not Illegally Obtained.

In a brief analysis, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the lower court’s order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress his statement. The reason was because both the trial court and the Superior Court found that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. Specifically, because he was not threatened, was told that he could leave;,was able to bring his insulin with him, and did not go to the police station against his will, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. The fact that he was administered Miranda warnings while in a police station did not transform this into a custodial interrogation. Because he was not in custody, he was not actually entitled to the warnings, and the police therefore did not have to stop questioning him when he said he did not want to make a statement. Accordingly, the Commonwealth will now be able to use his statement against him at his trial.

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