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Equivocal Request for Counsel Requires Police to Seek Clarification of Suspect’s Intent Under Oregon Law

The Oregon Court of Appeals determined that investigating officers failed to clarify the intent of a defendant’s equivocal invocation of the right to counsel, rendering his subsequent statements to police inadmissible.

Paul Joseph Sanelle was arrested on May 11, 2012 for a domestic violence-related murder. Detectives Anderson and Rau interviewed Sanelle on Saturday, May 12, 2012. Rau read Sanelle his Miranda rights and asked if he understood each of those rights. “Where’s the lawyer?” Sanelle asked. Rau asked “Have you got a lawyer? Have you hired a lawyer?” Sanelle answered “no,” saying he could not afford one.

“You’ll be appointed an attorney if you can’t afford one,” Rau told Sanelle. After telling him the appointment would occur at his arraignment on Monday, Anderson asked, “do you understand your rights?” and inquired whether he was willing to speak with detectives. “Yes, absolutely,” Sanelle responded. He then made several incriminating statements.

The trial court denied Sanelle’s motion to suppress, finding that “where’s the attorney?” was “not an invocation of the right to counsel or the right to remain silent,” because “defendant engaged in a lengthy interview without otherwise invoking his right to remain silent or his request for an attorney,” and he verbally acknowledged “that he understood his Miranda rights absolutely.”

The detectives then testified during Sanelle’s trial about his statements, and the prosecution played the audio recording of the interview. Sanelle was convicted of murder.

The Court of Appeals reversed. It first observed that under Article I, section 12, of the Oregon Constitution, “if the suspect unequivocally invokes the right to counsel, officers must stop interrogating the suspect and, if the suspect equivocally invokes the right to counsel, officers must follow up with questions to clarify if the suspect meant to invoke his Article I, section 12, right to counsel before proceeding with interrogation.”

The clarification must be on the specific point of whether the suspect is invoking his or her right to counsel. According to the Court, the detective’s response at best “clarified defendant’s right to court-appointed counsel,” not whether he was actually invoking that right. Once Sanelle equivocally invoked his right to counsel, “just repeating the question whether defendant understood his rights is not sufficient,” the Court explained.

Based on the facts and the applicable law, the Court concluded that “the interviewing officers failed to clarify the intent of defendant’s statement.” Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded “that, on this record, the trial court’s erroneous admission was not harmless.” The Court reversed and remanded. See: State v. Sanelle, 287 Or. App. 611 (2017). 

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