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Washington Supreme Court: Defendant Detained for Search at Border Was ‘In Custody’ for Miranda Purposes

The Supreme Court of Washington determined that Alejandro Escalante was “in custody” and entitled to the warnings enunciated in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), when he was detained for a search at the U.S.-Canada border.

Escalante and three friends were returning from a music festival. Border patrol agents were searching all vehicles coming from the festival. Escalante and his friends were directed to a secondary inspection area. Agents took their documents. The men were told to leave their belongings in the van and wait in a secondary “lobby.” The lobby was an 11-by-14-foot secured room that was not accessible to the public. The door was locked and controlled by an agent sitting behind a glass partition. Those detained in the lobby could neither use the bathroom nor access water without first obtaining permission and submitting to a pat-down search.

Agents patted down all four men, finding narcotics on two of them but none on Escalante. The two men with narcotics were moved to detention cells while Escalante and the fourth man continued to be held in the lobby. All of the men were held for five hours while agents searched the van. During this time, the agent behind the glass partition watched Escalante and kept his documents. No other travelers were in the lobby. The search uncovered drug paraphernalia and personal items containing drugs, including a backpack with small amounts of heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide (“LSD”). Without giving Miranda warnings, agents confronted Escalante with each item and asked if he owned it. Escalante admitted he owned the backpack. Local law enforcement officers then arrested Escalante and finally gave him Miranda warnings.

Escalante was tried in state court on charges of possessing heroin and LSD. He moved to suppress his statement that he owned the backpack because it was obtained by interrogation while he was in custody without Miranda warnings. The trial court denied the motion, the statement was admitted, and Escalante was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Washington Supreme Court granted further review.

The Court observed “[t]he Fifth Amendment guarantees that individuals will not be compelled by the government to incriminate themselves.” The Fifth Amendment protects an individual’s right to remain silent “unless he chooses to speak in the unfettered exercise of his own will.” Miranda. But interrogations while a suspect is in custody undermine the suspect’s will to remain silent due to the coercive effect of an isolated, police-dominated atmosphere where there is potential for brutality and psychological ploys designed to secure confessions. Id.

Even absent explicit coercion, when a suspect’s freedom of action is significantly curtailed, an individual may feel compelled to speak. Id. To ensure that an individual has freely chosen to speak to police during a custodial interrogation, Miranda requires police to inform a suspect of the right to remain silent and of the right to an attorney and to warn a suspect that any statement made will be used against them. Id. If these Miranda warnings are not given, any statement made by the suspect cannot be used as evidence against the suspect. Id. To be “in custody” does not require formal arrest but requires circumstances where a suspect’s freedom of action is curtailed to a “degree associated with formal arrest.” Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984).

Because border searches are usually very brief, generally the individual is not deemed to be in custody for Miranda purposes, but courts must examine the facts and circumstances of each incident to make that determination. United States v. FNU LNU, 653 F.3d 144 (2d Cir. 2011). Relevant circumstances include the nature of the surroundings, the extent of police control over the surroundings, the degree of physical restraint placed on the suspect, and the duration and character of the questioning. United States v. Butler, 249 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 2001).

The Court determined that Escalante was in custody because: (1) he was held in a lobby dominated by law enforcement and not open to the public; (2) the agents controlled all movement in and out of the lobby; (3) Escalante was subjected to a pat-search and had to obtain permission to use the bathroom or access water; (4) agents took his documents and did not return them; (5) drugs were discovered on two of his companions, which heightened the suspicion on him; and (6) the detention lasted more than five hours. The Court concluded that a reasonable person in these circumstances would have felt their “freedom of action [was] curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.” Thus, the Court held that Escalante’s unwarned statements should have been suppressed.

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Related legal case

State v. Escalante



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