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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Defendant Unambiguously Invoked Right to Remain Silent Suppresses Confession and Derivative Physical Evidence and Announces New Rule

by Chad Marks

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a police officer’s continued interrogation after the accused told the interrogator he was done talking violated his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, requiring suppression of both his confession and derivative physical evidence.

On August 7, 2015, Joshua Michael Lukach was taken into custody by Chief of Police Richard Wojciechowsky, whose intention was to question him about a murder. Once Lukach was detained, the chief took him into an interview room where he was advised of his Miranda rights several times. Lukach continuously denied any involvement in the murder. After his denials, he specifically told the chief, “Yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” Rather than ceasing his questioning, the chief continued to interrogate Lukach using a variety of manipulative techniques. Eventually, Lukach admitted to his involvement in the homicide. His confession also directed police to physical evidence implicating him in the crime.

Prior to trial, defense counsel filed motions to suppress any statements made to the police after Lukach told the chief he was done talking. The motion also sought to suppress the derivative physical evidence recovered as a result of his statements. The suppression court conducted a hearing and viewed a video recording of Lukach’s interrogation and invocation of his rights.

The court suppressed the incriminating statements he made, finding that they were obtained in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. The physical evidence that was obtained as a result of his confession was also suppressed as derivative of the illegally obtained confession. The prosecution appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the suppression order.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted review to address whether Lukach’s invocation was clear and unambiguous, and if so, whether the Superior Court properly affirmed the suppression of the derivative physical evidence.

The Court began its analysis by addressing the issue of whether Lukach clearly and unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent in accordance with Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010), which expanded the “unambiguous invocation rule” utilized for Miranda right to counsel analysis to Miranda right to remain silent inquiries. It requires courts to make an “objective inquiry” in whether the suspect’s invocation was equivocal or ambiguous.

The defendant in Berghuis remained silent for two hours and forty-five minutes but never actually stated that he wished to remain silent or didn’t want to talk to the police. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he didn’t unambiguously invoke his right to remain silent. The Berghuis Court explained that if “he had made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his right to cut off questioning.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that this case is “readily distinguishable from Berghuis.” Unlike the defendant in Berghuis, Lukach didn’t sit silently, but instead, he said “I’m done talking.” The Court determined that his statement “is virtually indistinguishable” from the desire to remain silent example language mentioned by the Berghuis Court.

The Court rejected the prosecution’s argument that the “I don’t know” portion of Lukach’s statement rendered his invocation ambiguous. Even if the phrase indicated he was “contemplating an action” other than remaining silent, his subsequent pronouncement that “I’m done talking” meant that he had definitively made up his mind. As such, his invocation was clear and unambiguous. Thus, the Court affirmed the suppression of his statements made after his invocation.

The Court then turned to the issue of whether the derivative physical evidence, i.e., fruits of the poisonous tree, was properly suppressed. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine doesn’t apply to illegally obtained confessions that aren’t coerced. United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004). The confession is inadmissible, but there isn’t a “deterrence-based argument” for also suppressing the fruits of the confession, reasoned the Patane Court. However, it recognized that the fruits of actually coerced statements must be suppressed.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that “[m]isleading statements and promises by the police” create an “impermissible inducement” that taints a suspect’s subsequent admissions. Commonwealth v. Gibbs, 553 A.2d 409 (Pa. 1989).

According to the Court, the chief’s continuous suggestions that he could help Lukach only if he confessed before the chief received lab results on evidence being tested coerced Lukach into giving up his clear and unambiguous invocation of his right to remain silent. Because of the chief’s impermissible inducement, the Court held “the derivative physical evidence recovered as a result of his confession was properly suppressed.”

The Court provided the following instructions for Pennsylvania courts: “we make clear that, in circumstances where a suspect invokes his or her Miranda rights and an officer continues the interrogation, suppression of the statement alone is an inadequate remedy as it would allow officers to ignore a suspect’s invocation in an attempt to secure physical evidence.” The Court opined that the admission of the derivative physical evidence in this case “would render meaningless the rights the Fifth Amendment is meant to protect.” Notably, this is an issue where Pennsylvania state law now provides greater protection for the accused than the U.S. Constitution.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court’s suppression of both the statements and derivative physical evidence and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. See: Commonwealth v. Lukach, 195 A.3d 176 (Pa. 2018). 

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