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Custodial Interrogation Must Cease When Suspect Unambiguously Invokes Right to Remain Silent, Says Fourth Circuit

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that investigators failed to scrupulously honor defendant’s invocation of his right to remain silent by continuing to question him after announcing he “wasn’t going to say anything at all.” As a result, the Court ruled that the trial court erred by denying defendant’s motion to suppress all inculpatory statements and vacated his convictions. 

In September 2014, law enforcement officers seized cardboard parcels filled with packages of synthetic cannabinoids (popularly known as “spice”) from two local businesses in Newport News, Virginia. Nader Abdallah was arrested on charges related to the spice.

Special Agent Lewis of the Department of Homeland Security began an interrogation of Abdallah by reading his Miranda rights to him. Abdallah interrupted Lewis, stating he “wasn’t going to say anything at all.” Lewis replied, “Well, just let me finish your Warning first.”

Immediately after the warning, Lewis asked, “Do you even know why you’re under arrest?” Abdallah answered, “No, tell me.” Lewis then repeated the Miranda warning. Abdallah indicated he understood his rights and went on to make multiple inculpatory statements.

Before trial, Abdallah filed a motion to suppress all of his statements. The district court denied the motion. A jury convicted Abdallah of several offenses, and he appealed. The Court, quoting Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, observed, “If a suspect ‘indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.’” But the invocation of the right to remain silent must be unambiguous.  Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010). An invocation is unambiguous when a “reasonable police officer under the circumstances would have understood” the suspect intended to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights (quoting Tice v. Johnson, 647 F.3d 87 (4th Cir. 2011), and Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994)). Examples of statements that unambiguously invoked the right include: “I have decided not to say anymore,” “I don’t want to talk no more,” and “I don’t wanna talk about it.”The Court explained the “resumption of questioning is permissible” and subsequent confessions are admissible only if the suspect’s invocation of the right to remain silent was “scrupulously honored.” (quoting Michigan v. Mosley, 423 U.S. 96 (1975)). Factors included in determining if the right has been scrupulously honored are: (1) did officers immediately cease questioning, (2) did officers wait a significant amount of time before resuming questioning, and (3) was the second interrogation regarding a crime that was not the subject of the first interrogation? Weeks v. Angelone, 176 F.3d 249 (4th Cir. 1999). Questioning resumes whenever officers engage in express questioning or in words or actions known to likely elicit incriminating responses. Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980). The Court noted that the question “Do you even know why you’re under arrest?” has been “recognized” as a question “likely to elicit an incriminating response.” Etheridge v. Johnson, 49 F.Supp.2d 963 (S.D. Tex. 1999). The Court determined that Abdallah had unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent when he said he “wasn’t going to say anything at all.” The Court further found that his right was not scrupulously honored when Lewis failed to cease questioning but instead immediately asked, “Do you even know why you’re under arrest?” Consequently, Abdallah’s inculpatory statements are inadmissible, the Court ruled. 

Thus, his motion to suppress all statements should have been granted. Accordingly, the Court vacated all of Abdallah’s convictions and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: United States v. Abdallah, 911 F.3d 201 (4th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Abdallah



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