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NJ Supreme Court: Failure to Advise Suspect of Pending Charges Before Waiver of Right Against Self-Incrimination Requires Suppression of Statements

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that when police obtain a suspect’s waiver of his right not to incriminate himself before informing the suspect of “the essence of the charges filed against him,” the State cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect knowingly and intelligently waived his right. Thus, any statement given must be suppressed.

Detectives Thomas Glackin and Brian Mera questioned Adrian Vincenty about the attempted robbery and attempted murder of Jerry Castellano. Video surveillance of the attack showed two men attempt to rob Castellani but did not succeed. One of the men shot Castellano in the back of the head. A mask worn by one of the assailants was either dropped or thrown away. Police recovered the mask and ultimately Vincenty’s DNA was found on it. The police also identified Vincenty from the video recording.

At the beginning of the interrogation, Vincenty appeared willing to talk. He signed a form acknowledging he had received his Miranda warnings. Mera told Vincenty that police identified him from the video recording and asked his assistance in identifying the other perpetrator. Mera told Vincenty that “the judge already charged [him].” Mera further explained that police had obtained Vincenty’s DNA.

Vincenty indicated that he was confused and denied any involvement in the attack. But Mera replied, “We have you with the DNA and we have you ... with gun charges, right?” Nevertheless Vincenty continued to deny any involvement.

Mera told Vincenty that the evidence had been presented to a judge who “put the charges in.” Vincenty still maintained that he was surprised the detectives had any evidence against him. When the detectives showed Vincenty a picture of the assailants, Vincenty responded that one of the men looked like him and wore a coat similar to his.

At one point, Mera told Vincenty they had charges against him. Vincenty replied that he had not received a letter from a judge about any charges and asked what the charges were. The detectives showed him the list, explaining that he had been charged with attempted homicide, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. Shortly thereafter, Vincenty said he wanted to talk to a lawyer. But the detectives continued to ask for information about the attack. Once more, Vincenty said he was surprised and confused and again insisted on speaking with a lawyer. The police then stopped the interrogation.

Vincenty was indicted on numerous felonies. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress his statements. The trial court granted his motion as to anything he said after he requested a lawyer but denied the motion as to all the statements he made before requesting a lawyer. Vincenty entered into a plea agreement whereby he pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted murder and reserved his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted Vincenty’s petition for certification.

The Court observed that the common law has granted individuals the “right against self-incrimination since colonial times.” State v. A.G.D., 835 A.2d 291 (N.J. 2003). It is one of the most important protections of the criminal law. State v. Presha, 748 A.2d 1108 (N.J. 2000). But individuals may waive the right. Presha. However, law enforcement officers must inform suspects of the right before getting a waiver. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). A waiver must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. State v. Reed, 627 A.2d 630 (N.J. 1993). The State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Presha. If suspects are not informed of the charges pending against them, they necessarily lack critically important information to enable them to knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive the right against self-incrimination. A.G.D. 

In such circumstance, the State cannot meet its burden of proof. Id. The police may inform the suspect of the charges before or after the Miranda warnings, but they must do so before obtaining any waiver. Id.

The Court observed that the detectives obtained Vincenty’s waiver at the outset of the interrogation before informing him of any charges. Vincent appeared willing to talk. But once he learned of the charges and thus “the heightened magnitude of the interrogation,” he immediately requested an attorney. That in itself is evidence that he did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive his right. The Court ruled that Vincenty’s suppression motion should have been granted. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Vincenty, 202 A.3d 1273 (N.J. 2019). 

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