Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Warning Signs

United States v. Williams, No. 11-324-cr (2d Cir. May 17, 2012) (McLaughin, Parker, Wesley, CJJ)

On this government appeal, the circuit reversed a district court order that suppressed a Mirandized statement, after finding that it was the product of an illegal “two-step” interrogation.

Robert Williams was arrested in a Bronx apartment in which law enforcement officers executed a search warrant. The officers found four weapons, but were expecting to uncover many more. One agent, without Mirandizing him, asked Williams who owned the guns they had found, and he said that they were his.  An hour later, the agent took Williams to a police station, where he read Williams his rights. Williams waived, and gave a detailed confession.

The district court suppressed Williams’ initial, un-Mirandized statement as outside the scope of the public safety exception, since it went to who owned the guns the agents found, and not where other guns might be located. It then, citing a recent circuit decision, Capers (see “Two Steps Forward,” posted December 11, 2010), held that it was also “constrained” to suppress the station-house confession. The district court held that, under Capers, the main question was wheher the initial failure to Mirandize was “legally justifiable.” Finding that it was not, it found the later Miranda waiver to be invalid.

The government, which does not seem to have challenged the suppression of the first statement, appealed the suppression of the second, and the circuit reversed.  A Mirandized statement that follows an unwarned interrogation should only be suppressed where the police used “a deliberate, two-step strategy … to obtain the postwarning confession.” A district court should “review the totality of the objective and subjective evidence surrounding the interrogations” in order to make this call.

Under this standard, the government established that there was no deliberate two-step interrogation. There was simply no evidence that the agent questioned Williams in the apartment “in a way calculated to undermine the Miranda warning later given at the station house.” In context, the question who owned the guns was most plausibly seen as an effort to learn who in the apartment was the person specified in the search warrant as the agents’ principal target. Moreover, the district court was incorrect in concluding that Capers required a shift in focus from whether the first interrogation was a deliberate effort to undermine Miranda to whether the decision to forego warnings initially was “legally justifiable.” Rather, Capers simply sets out the general test identified above: a review of the totality of the evidence surrounding the investigations.

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