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California Court of Appeal: Fifth Amendment Violation Where Police Use Two-Step Interrogation in Deliberate Strategy to Circumvent Miranda

The Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate District, held the trial court erred by admitting incriminating post-Miranda statements obtained through the use of pre-Miranda statements in a deliberate strategy to circumvent Miranda through the use of a two-step interrogation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. 

Byron Sumagang was arrested for murder in connection with the death of Carole Sangco. Detective Terry Rahiri employed a two-stage interrogation process, i.e., the first interrogation conducted without providing Miranda warnings and the second interrogation after providing the required warnings. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). During the interrogations at the sheriff’s office, Sumagang was handcuffed, wearing jail clothing, and not free to leave.

Rahiri testified at the subsequent suppression hearing that he knew Sumagang was in custody and knew that he was supposed to read Miranda warnings prior to a custodial interrogation of a suspect. When asked why he chose not to provide Miranda warnings prior to his initial interrogation of Sumagang, Rahiri testified that he “wanted to see what he had to say first.”

At the start of the prewarning interrogation, Rahiri advised Sumagang that he doesn’t have to talk, he can leave to go back to his jail cell, and his talking to him is “totally voluntary.” Sumagang gave a slight nod in response. During the interrogation, Rahiri questioned Sumagang about the circumstances surrounding Sangco’s death, and Sumagang answered the questions posed to him. Eventually, Sumagang expressly admitted to choking Sangco and made other incriminating statements. The prewarning interrogation lasted about 25 minutes.

After a two-minute break, Rahiri advised Sumagang of his Miranda rights, and after Sumagang agreed to waive his rights and talk, Rahiri continued to interrogate him. During the postwarning interrogation, Rahiri questioned Sumagang in narrative form based largely on the information obtained from Sumagang during the prewarning interrogation. Rahiri asked Sumagang to explain how he killed Sangco and specific details surrounding her death, and he again answered the questions posed to him. The postwarning interrogation lasted about 45 minutes.

Sumagang filed a motion to suppress his prewarning and postwarning statements. The trial court ruled that his prewarning statements were inadmissible except for impeachment purposes, but it ruled that his postwarning statements were admissible in the State’s case-in-chief, finding that Rahiri didn’t deliberately violate Miranda and that Sumagang’s statements were voluntarily made. Sumagang was found guilty, and he appealed.

The Court observed that during a custodial interrogation, “the accused must be adequately and effectively apprised of his rights and the exercise of those rights must be fully honored.” Miranda. The failure to provide the required warnings and obtain a waiver of rights prior to “custodial questioning generally requires exclusion of any statements obtained.” Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004).

The Court began its analysis of the admissibility of Sumagang’s postwarning statements by noting that it first had to determine the governing two-step interrogation case law applicable to the present case. The State argued that the statements in question are admissible under Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298 (1985). In Elstad, police went to the suspect’s residence to arrest him for burglary. Without having been Mirandized, the defendant voluntarily admitted that he had been at the scene of the burglary. He was subsequently transported to the police station. At the start of the interrogation, he was read his Miranda rights and waived them. He eventually made a full confession and was convicted. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected his argument that his postwarning confession must be suppressed because it was tainted by his earlier statement made in his home without having been read his Miranda rights.

In contrast to the State’s reliance on Elstad, Sumagang argued that his postwarning statements are inadmissible under Seibert. In that case, police conducted a two-step custodial interrogation in which they first deliberately questioned the suspect without providing Miranda warnings. After the defendant admitted her involvement in the murder under investigation, police stopped the interrogation for a 20-minute break. Prior to resuming the interrogation, police read her Miranda rights. She repeated her incriminating statements from the previous interrogation. Despite the fact the questioning officer admitted he withheld Miranda warnings until the suspect confessed, the trial court admitted the postwarning confession. The U.S. Supreme Court held that postwarning statements are inadmissible under certain circumstances. See Seibert.

After discussing Elstad and Seibert, the Court determined that the present case is similar to Seibert and distinguishable from Elstad. The Court cited to the following relevant facts distinguishing Elstad from Seibert and the present case: in Elstad, (1) the defendant made his prewarning statement in an entirely different location and interview than his postwarning statement at the police station, (2) the defendant merely stated that he had heard of the burglary and admitted that he had been at the scene of the crime, and (3) there was nothing to indicate that the police made a deliberate decision to withhold Miranda warnings in an attempt to elicit a confession in circumvention of his constitutional rights.  

Whereas, in both Seibert and the present case, (1) the prewarning interrogation occurred in the police station and was “systematic, exhaustive, and managed with psychological skill”, (2) “there was little, if anything, of incriminating potential left unsaid” following the prewarning interrogation, and (3) police deliberately withheld Miranda warnings in a calculated strategy to elicit a confession. Seibert. Thus, the Court concluded that Seibert governs the analysis of the present case.

The Court then explained that the Seibert Court was fractured regarding the standard or under what circumstances postwarning statements are inadmissible in two-step interrogation situations. See Seibert. A plurality of the Seibert Court held that the “threshold issue” is “whether it would be reasonable to find that in these circumstances the warnings could function ‘effectively’ as Miranda requires [with respect to the entire two-step interrogation as a whole].” Seibert (plurality opinion). The plurality opinion provides several factors to consider when making this determination. (See full opinion for list of factors and discussion.)

On the other hand, Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment but put forth a different test based largely on the intent of the interrogating officer. Seibert (Kennedy, J., concurring). Under this standard, postwarning statements are inadmissible only if “the two-step interrogation technique was used in a calculated way to undermine the Miranda warning.” Id. Justice Kennedy explained that the interrogator relied upon prewarning statements to obtain the postwarning statements used at trial, adding that “[t]he postwarning interview resembled a cross-examination. The officer confronted the defendant with her inadmissible prewarning statements and pushed her to acknowledge them.” Id.

After discussing the two competing standards in Seibert, the Court observed that the California Supreme Court has declined to decide whether the plurality’s or Justice Kennedy’s standard should serve as the structural framework for analysis in California courts. See People v. Krebs, 452 P.3d 609 (Cal. 2019). As a result, the Court agreed with the State that “Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion represents the holding of the court because it provides the narrowest grounds for supporting the judgement.” See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977). Consequently, without deciding the issue, the Court assumed that Justice Kennedy’s standard controls its analysis of whether the record shows that the two-step interrogation technique was used to deliberately circumvent Miranda and proceeded with its analysis under that assumption.

The Court stated that the State must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that police “did not deliberately withhold the requisite warnings as part of a calculated strategy to foil Miranda.” United States v. Guillen, 995 F.3d 1095 (10th Cir. 2021). It concluded that the State failed to carry its burden.

The record lacks evidence of Rahiri’s subjective intent because the prosecution repeatedly objected to defense counsel’s questions regarding his thought process regarding Miranda during the two-step interrogation, according to the Court. Nevertheless, “deliberateness may also be inferred from objective indications of subjective intent to frustrate Miranda.” Id.

The Court reasoned that like in Seibert Rahiri relied on Sumagang’s prewarning statements to elicit his postwarning incriminating statements. Rahiri did so in a manner that “resembled a cross-examination” by asking leading questions to obtain the desired answers that incorporated incriminating statements made by Sumagang during the prewarning interrogation. See Seibert (Kennedy, J., concurring) (“Reference to the prewarning statement was an implicit suggestion that the mere repetition of the earlier statement was not independently incriminating.”).

The Court noted that the police failed to use any of the “curative measures” suggested in Justice Kennedy’s concurrence. For example, there wasn’t a significant break between the two stages of the interrogation that would allow the defendant to distinguish between the two interrogations and to understand that the interrogation had “taken a new turn.” Id. Critically, apart from the Miranda warnings, Rahiri failed to advise Sumagang that his prewarning statements still couldn’t be used against him even if he decided to remain silent during the postwarning interrogation, the Court stated. Finally, regardless of whether Rahiri’s use of a two-step interrogation was deliberate or not with respect to circumventing Miranda, it didn’t serve any legitimate purpose, the Court declared. See id.    

Despite the fact the Court already determined that Rahiri violated Seibert under Justice Kennedy’s deliberate intent standard set forth in his concurrence, the Court still proceeded to discuss and apply each of the “objective factors” articulated in the Seibert plurality opinion to the facts of current case. (See opinion for full discussion.) After doing so, it determined that Rahiri “deliberately undermined Miranda by employing the two-step interrogation tactic” under the plurality’s standard as well.

The Court concluded that use of the two-step interrogation by Rahiri “violated the standards set forth in both Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Seibert as well as the Seibert plurality’s opinion,” and “the trial court erred by admitting Sumagang’s postwarning statements under Miranda and Seibert.” Thus, the error constituted a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Court held.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court. See: People v. Sumagang, 69 Cal. App. 5th 712 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 2021). 

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