PA Supreme Court: "I'm done talking" invokes right to remain silent

The Right to Remain Silent

 Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Lukach, holding that the defendant unambiguously asserted his right to remain silent by telling police that he was done talking and had nothing else to talk about. This decision is significant because it makes it easier for a defendant to invoke the right to remain silent during a police interrogation. Specifically, prosecutors will be less successful when they argue that the defendant was “ambiguous” when asserting their right to remain silent.   

Commonwealth v. Lukach

On August 6, 2015 at approximately 5:00 AM, a Pottsville Police Officer received a call from another officer requesting his presence at the scene of a homicide. Upon arrival, the officer observed blood on the roadway and was informed by other officers that they found the body of the victim lying in the street. During their preliminary investigation, officers became aware that the defendant and a Mr. Thomas had been involved in a prior crime at the victim’s house. They quickly became persons of interest in the homicide investigation. Other Pottsville Officers reported seeing the defendant and Mr. Thomas walking together on the day on which the victim’s body was found, and police later encountered both individuals at 12th Street and Market Street, which is in close proximity to where they found the decedent’s body.

During a discussion with an officer, the defendant stated he was in the area to see what was happening. He further stated that he had been with Mr. Thomas for the entire previous evening and had previously visited an A-Plus store at approximately 5:00 AM. The officers then went to the A-Plus store and determined that the defendant had not been at the A-Plus store at that time. Later that day, an officer went to his house, advised his mother of the homicide, and stated that he wished to speak to the defendant. The defendant was not home, but his mother consented to a search of the property. During the search of the property, officers recovered box cutters and work gloves, both of which were similar to items found at the crime scene.  

The next day, police detained the defendant based on two non-related warrants. After arresting him, they put him in an interrogation room. A detective officer turned on an audio and visual recorder, read the defendant his Miranda rights, and began to interview the defendant regarding the homicide of the victim. Prior to incriminating himself, the defendant told the officer: “Yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The police officer then immediately replied, “You don’t have to say anything, I told you that you could stop.” The officer, however, continued to ask the defendant questions and talk to him. At some point, the officer left the room for approximately eight minutes. Another officer then entered the room, asked for the defendant’s shoes, and the defendant turned them over. The original officer then re-entered the room and discussed with the defendant the types of evidence that could be found on shoes. The defendant continued to deny involvement in the homicide.

Later, the defendant foolishly asked the officer if he could ask him a quick question off camera. After their off-the-record conversation, the officer turned the camera back on, re-advised the defendant of his Miranda rights, and the defendant asked to speak with someone from the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office in regards to whether he could receive a deal in exchange for his cooperation. An Assistant District Attorney arrived shortly thereafter. The defendant was again advised of his Miranda rights and he subsequently confessed to participating in the victim’s murder.

As part of his confession, the defendant told the police that he used one of the victim’s credit cards to access an ATM and then placed it in a storm drain. Officers subsequently recovered the credit card, a pair of sunglasses, a t-shirt and a hat in a storm drain. Based on the confession and the recovery of the credit card, officers were able to retrieve video which showed the defendant accessing an ATM around the time of the homicide. They arrested him and charged him with murder and related criminal charges.

The Motion to Suppress the Statement for a Miranda Violation

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress any statements made to the police after he stated “yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The motion further requested that the defendant’s shoes and any other evidence recovered as a result of those statements, including the items found in the storm drain and the ATM video, also be suppressed because they were all recovered in violation of defendant’s constitutional rights. The trial court agreed with the defense. It found that the confession was coerced because the continuing interrogation was “meant to pressure the defendant into relinquishing his right and the statements he thereafter made were the product of compulsion, subtle or otherwise.”

The Superior Court Appeal

The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal. The Superior Court affirmed the suppression order. The Superior Court found that the officer violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights as he failed to scrupulously honor the defendant’s request to remain silent, and the defendant’s subsequent waiver of his Miranda rights before speaking to the Assistant District Attorney did not cure that violation or render his confession voluntary. The Superior Court also agreed that the physical evidence that was obtained as a result of Appellee’s confession was illegally obtained and affirmed the suppression’s court order. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Court granted allocatur.

When do the Police Have to Give You Your Miranda Warnings?

The police do not always have to provide a suspect or arrestee with Miranda warnings. Instead, police are required to provide Miranda warnings only if they want to use the results of a custodial interrogation in court. Thus, whether Miranda warnings are required depends on two factors – 1) you must be in custody, typically meaning under arrest, and 2) the police must ask questions which are reasonably likely to elicit incriminating statements. If police fail to provide Miranda warnings prior to conducting a custodial interrogation, they usually may not use the statements made during the interrogation in court. Police do not, however, have to provide Miranda warnings if they are not going to question you. Generally, a defendant is in custody for Miranda purposes when the defendant is deprived of his physical freedom in a significant way, or when the defendant reasonably believes that his or her freedom of action is restricted by the interrogation. In addition to providing Miranda warnings, police must also honor a defendant’s invocation of his or her rights. This means that if you ask to speak with a lawyer or tell the police that you wish to remain silent, then they cannot continue to question you without first taking a substantial break. Instead, the interrogation must cease immediately. If the police continue questioning after an invocation of the right to remain silent or consult with an attorney and obtain statements because of this questioning, the trial court should bar the Commonwealth from using the statements at trial because this evidence was illegally obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  

This rule seems simple, but it can become complicated when it is not totally clear whether a defendant actually seek to exercise his or her rights. Various appellate courts have held that the invocation of the right to remain silent or speak with a lawyer must be unambiguous. Obviously, most suspects, when questioned by the police, do not say “I am invoking my Fifth Amendment Rights against self-incrimination.” Rather, they say something that is similar to what the defendant said in his case. As such, suppression courts must then decide whether this was an unambiguous invocation of one’s right to remain silent. If the invocation of the right to remain silent was ambiguous, then the police may continue to question the suspect.    

What is an Unambiguous Invocation of Your Right to Remain Silent?   

Appellate courts have held that when an individual is given his Miranda warnings, all interrogation must cease. The problem, as mentioned above, is that a defendant typically does not speak in legalese and will attempt to invoke their right to remain silent in ways that are not always the most articulate. Over the years, most appellate have acknowledged this problem, so courts do not always require a suspect to explicitly reference the Fifth Amendment or the right to remain silent. However, the courts do require that a defendant’s request be “unambiguous.” Ironically, the decisions on this issue are quite ambiguous. Nonetheless, the courts will employ an objective inquiry into determining whether the defendant’s request to remain silent was “unambiguous.”

One issue that frequently arises, as in the case here, is whether the invocation was prefaced by some qualifying phrase. In Lukach, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed cases from other jurisdictions that addressed this issue. In these jurisdictions, the courts found that when a defendant prefaced his “invocation” by a phrase such as “I don’t know” or “I don’t know [about x crime],” then the defendant was not invoking his right to remain silent. As such, if you are being interrogated for a crime, you should try to be as clear as possible when you invoke your right to remain silent.  

The Defendant’s Invocation Was Unambiguous  

Here, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and affirmed the order granting the suppression of the defendant’s statement. The Court found that the defendant unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights when he stated “I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” Therefore, the Court held that the defendant’s statements were properly suppressed. The Court also affirmed the suppression of the physical evidence, finding that police had coerced the statement. This part of the Court’s decision is a little bit unusual because the law typically does not require suppression of the derivative evidence of a Miranda violation, meaning that if you confess and tell the police where to find other evidence, the confession may be suppressed, but the other evidence usually will not. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently granted an appeal in a different case to evaluate whether the derivative evidence should also be suppressed. It is possible the justices are leaning in favor of changing that rule to require the suppression of the derivative evidence given the decision to suppress the physical evidence in this case

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 Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

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