New Jersey Supreme Court: Defendant Did Not Voluntarily Waive Privilege Against Self-Incrimination Because Police Persistently Contradicted and Undermined Significance of Miranda During Interrogation
by Richard Resch
The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that because detectives repeatedly contradicted and undermined the importance of the defendant’s Miranda rights prior to and during interrogation, the State failed to prove that the defendant voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and thus suppressed his statement.
A Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (“BCPO”) detective and a detective from the Hackensack Police Department (“HDP”) investigated allegations that O.D.A.-C. (“Defendant”) had sexually abused his girlfriend’s 14-year-old granddaughter over a two-year period.
At the beginning of the interrogation, the BCPO detective advised the Defendant that they were going to “go through some information and some questions … before we can talk to you, all right?” Prior to reading the Miranda warnings, the HDP detective stated that it’s “Just a formality.” The HDP detective then read the warnings from a form, and the Defendant initialed each right and signed his name under the “waiver of rights” paragraph on the form.
After recounting H.B.’s allegations for about 15 minutes, the detectives attempted to get the Defendant to confirm the allegations and began pressing him to tell them how many times he touched H.B. When asked if it was “8 to 15 times,” the Defendant said “[i]t’s too many.” Then when asked if it was 15 or 20 times, the Defendant said “I don’t think so.”
As the detectives continued to press the Defendant, he stated “If you turn that off [recording device] and then I –.” The BCPO detective advised that they couldn’t turn it off because it’s the law and “that’s to protect you.” The HDP detective then stated “What we talk about in here is between us … it’s confidential between us, it’s staying between us, okay.”
Immediately after that exchange, the Defendant admitted that he used steroids and said that after injecting them “[y]ou do silly things.” After further interrogation, the Defendant grew hesitant to answer the detectives’ questions, stating “Well, first of all, when you make me write that, it say that anything that I say, it goes against my, you know.” The HDP detective responded by saying “That’s a formality, that’s what it is.”
After further questioning without the Defendant answering to the detectives’ satisfaction, the HDP detective advised “whatever you’re saying here, it may be hard to believe that it’s not going to work against you, your cooperation is paramount.”
The Defendant reiterated his reservations about answering the detectives’ questions based on his experience with a prior case in which he was incarcerated. In response, the HDP detective reassured that “Anything you say, like I said, is only going to help you, it’s not going to hurt you. You understand what I’m saying?” The Defendant then asked for a lawyer, and the detectives ended the interview.
The Defendant was indicted on multiple counts of sexual assault, and he moved to suppress his statement pretrial. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that he knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights. He subsequently entered a conditional plea to second degree endangering a child that allowed him to preserve his right to challenge the denial of his motion to suppress his statement.
On appeal, a divided Appellate Division panel found the HPD detective’s comments amounted to a “blatant end-run around measures designed to protect bedrock constitutional guarantees.” It vacated the Defendant’s conditional plea and remanded the case back to the trial court. The State appealed as a matter of right under R 2:2-1(a)(2).
The Court began its analysis by noting that Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), imposes vital protections against the inherent pressures of custodial interrogations and safeguards the privilege against self-incrimination enshrined in the Fifth Amendment by requiring that suspects be read various warnings regarding their rights prior to questioning while in police custody.
The Court then discussed New Jersey’s privilege against self-incrimination that’s rooted in the common law and codified at N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-19 and N.J.R.E. 503, explaining that the privilege is “venerated and deeply rooted” in New Jersey law. It’s treated “as though it were of constitutional magnitude.” State v. O’Neill, 936 A.2d 438 (N.J. 2007). Importantly, the Court observed that New Jersey’s privilege “offers broader protection than” the Fifth Amendment. State v. Ahmad, 252 A.3d 968 (N.J. 2021). In New Jersey, suspects must be informed of their Miranda rights prior to custodial interrogation, and the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights “in light of all the circumstances,” State v. Sims, 271 A.3d 299 (N.J. 2022), which is a higher burden of proof than required under federal law that requires the government to “prove waiver only by a preponderance of the evidence.” Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986).
The Court explained that there are various types of statements made by police that contradict or undermine Miranda and thus are not looked upon favorably by courts. First, police “cannot directly contradict, out of one side of his mouth, the Miranda warnings just given out of the other.” State v. L.H., 215 A.3d 516 (N.J. 2019). For example, characterizing Miranda warnings as a “formality” downplays their importance, Doody v. Ryan, 649 F.3d 986 (9th Cir. 2011), and undermines “the very purpose of Miranda.” Ross v. State, 45 So.3d 403 (Fla. 2010).
Second, the Court stated that implying or promising that the contents of an interrogation will remain confidential is even more problematic than referring to Miranda warnings as a formality and directly contradicts Miranda’s explicit warning that anything said “can be used against [a person] in a court of law.” Miranda. (See opinion for citations to court opinions from various jurisdictions condemning this behavior.)
Third, telling a suspect that statements “will not work against” or “will not be used against” him contradicts Miranda because its warnings expressly state that statements can be used against a suspect, so courts take a dim view of these types of remarks, according to the Court. L.H.; see, e.g., United States v. Lall, 607 F.3d 1277 (11th Cir. 2010); Linares v. State, 471 S.E.2d 208 (Ga. 1996).
Finally, the Court stated advising a suspect that confessing “could not hurt” and “could only help” him also contradicts Miranda. State v. Puryear, 117 A.3d 1255 (App. Div. 2015); see also State in Interest of A.S., 999 A.2d 1136 (N.J. 2010).
Applying the foregoing governing principles to the current case, the Court determined that the detectives “undermined the Miranda warnings in all [four] of the above ways to try to elicit a confession.” It explained in detail how specific statements made by the detectives ran afoul of each of the four ways police are prohibited from undermining or contradicting Miranda.
As part of the totality of the circumstances analysis, the Court acknowledged that the Defendant initially waived his rights, showed some familiarity with them during the interrogation, knew he was being recorded, and eventually invoked his right to counsel. Nevertheless, the Court concluded: “we cannot isolate and minimize the string of misrepresentations in this case. Cumulatively, the number and significance of the detective’s misleading statements undermined the Miranda warnings and, by extension, the voluntariness of defendant’s waiver.” Thus, the Court ruled that the Defendant’s statement must be suppressed in full.
Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. See: State v. O.D.A.-C., 273 A.3d 413 (N.J. 2022).
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