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Miranda Violation: 9th Circuit Reverses Murder Conviction

by Christopher Zoukis

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the murder conviction of a 14-year-old boy who confessed to the crime after invoking his right to counsel. The Court concluded that the boy’s Miranda rights were violated.

The September 29, 2017 opinion reexamined the conviction of Jessie Rodriguez for the Los Angeles gang-related murder of Cynthia Portillo in February 2005. Rodriguez was implicated in the crime by two gang members. He was arrested and interrogated by LAPD detectives on March 8, 2005, when he was 14 years old.

After a lengthy series of questions about his identity and other background information, the detectives read the Miranda warnings to Rodriguez. They then questioned him about his involvement in the murder. He denied any; they said he was lying. Eventually, Rodriguez invoked his right to counsel. At that point, he was transported to the central station to be booked.

When he returned to the local police station, Rodriguez asked one of the detectives what was going to happen to him and asked him for a business card because he might want “to talk” with the detective. However, the detective advised Rodriguez that he could not talk with him because Rodriquez had invoked his right to counsel. The detective explained that he could not talk with Rodriguez until Rodriquez spoke with an attorney or “changed his mind” about exercising his right to counsel.

Rodriguez allegedly decided he wanted to talk with the detective and was brought into an interview room. At the detective’s request, Rodriguez wrote his statement, in which he confessed to the shooting.

His attorney subsequently filed a motion to suppress the confession because it was obtained in violation of Miranda. According to Rodriguez, the detectives kept discussing the case with him even after he had asked for a lawyer. Rodriguez also claimed that detectives pressured him into providing the written statement by promising to keep his case in juvenile court if he cooperated, and the detective handed him the business card to invite him to continue talking. Finally, Rodriguez accused the detectives of telling him what to say in his written confession.

The trial court denied the motion. The jury convicted him of second-degree murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 84 years to life in prison. He appealed, arguing that his confession was admitted into evidence in violation of Miranda. The California Court of Appeal affirmed his convictions, and the California Supreme Court summarily dismissed his petition for direct review.

On November 17, 2010, he filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The district court denied both the petition and a certificate of appealability. He then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which granted a certificate on the question of whether his confession was obtained in violation of Miranda.

The Court agreed that Rodriguez’s written confession was obtained in violation of Miranda. It reviewed the videotape and transcript of the police interview in order to understand what happened. This review established, by clear and convincing evidence, that the detectives had not stopped the interrogation after Rodriguez invoked his right to counsel, and that Rodriguez had not waived the right by continuing to talk to the police.

The Court determined that Rodriguez could not have waived the right to counsel because such a waiver must be “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.” Because there is a legal presumption against waiver, “the government bears the heavy burden of showing that the waiver was valid.” The government did not meet that burden here because Rodriguez was 14 years old at the time of the interview, had a borderline IQ of 78, and was particularly “susceptible to suggestion and coercion.” And, of course, the tactics used by the detectives were coercive.

Under the rule set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), once a suspect invokes his right to counsel, a valid waiver of that right cannot be established by showing only that he responded to continued police-initiated custodial interrogation.

That is what occurred in this case. “At a point where the law required [the detective] to back off, he did not ‘scrupulously honor’ [Rodriguez’s] right to cut off questioning; he stepped on it,” observed the Court. In addition, the appellate court ruled that the illegally obtained confession was highly prejudicial to Rodriguez.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. It directed that unless the State elects to retry Rodriguez within a reasonable time, “the district court shall grant Mr. Rodriguez’s habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.”See: Rodriguez v. McDonald, 872 F.3d 908 (9th Cir. 2017).  

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