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Vermont Supreme Court: Under Totality of Circumstances, Police Interview of Defendant in Store Parking Lot Was ‘Custodial Interrogation,’ Triggering Requirement for Miranda Warnings

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Vermontruled that, given the totality of circumstances, a police interview with a defendant was custodial and thereby triggered the requirement for Miranda warnings where, among other factors, two police officers sought out the defendant, asked her to exit the store in which they found her to speak to them, restricted her freedom of movement, presented her with evidence of her guilt, and never advised her that she was free to leave and didn’t have to speak with them. Because police failed to provide Miranda warnings prior to the custodial interrogation, the Court held that her statements were obtained in violation of her Fifth Amendment and Chapter I, Article 10 rights and must be suppressed.

Shannon Barry was being investigated for the drug-related death of Heather Larocque in Barre City in June 2019. Detective Pontbriand was looking into the death, while Corporal Houle was assigned to unravel the drug distribution network involved.

The officers believed Barry sold the deadly fentanyl-laced heroin to Larocque and sought an interview. They made multiple attempts to speak with Barry, including setting up two appointments for her to speak with them at the police station—but she failed to appear for either of them—and numerous phone calls to her, all to no avail. Finally, after several days of being unable to interview her, they went looking for her and happened to see her enter a convenience store.

Houle entered the store, called out Barry’s name, and told her that he “needed to talk.” He led her outside, and she silently followed him. She was directed to place her purse on the hood of their police cruiser. Houle and Pontbriand positioned themselves between Barry and her purse and began questioning her without advising her that she was free to leave or that she wasn’t required to talk with them.

Houle told Barry that they “knew she sold heroin” and that “you’re on the hook, you’re involved with this.” Barry made statements incriminating herself but refused to provide any information about anyone else as the officers repeatedly urged her to do. The conversation lasted between 10 to 20 minutes, and at its conclusion, Barry was placed under arrest. 

Barry was charged with “selling or dispensing a regulated drug with death resulting,” in violation of 18 V.S.A. § 4250(a). She sought to suppress her statements made during the interview outside the convenience store, arguing that they were obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Chapter 1, Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution. The trial court granted her motion, ruling that Barry was subjected to a custodial interrogation without the benefit of being advised of her rights. The State promptly filed an appeal.

The Court began its analysis by noting both the Fifth Amendment and Article 10 provide a privilege against self-incrimination. To safeguard this fundamental right, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed that the police must utilize “procedural safeguards” prior to conducting a “custodial interrogation.” Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). These safeguards are commonly referred to as Miranda warnings and require that a suspect “has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.” Id. Violations of the duty to provide Miranda warnings require the suppression of statements made prior to the warnings being provided. State v. Badger, 450 A.2d 336 (Vt. 1982); Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004). 

The Court stated that the requirement for Miranda warnings is triggered at the start of a “custodial interrogation.” Miranda. It explained that for purposes of Miranda a person is in “custody” when “there is a ‘formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement’ of the degree associated with a formal arrest.” State v. LeClaire, 819 A.2d 719 (Vt. 2003) (quoting California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121 (1983)). Whether the latter situation exists requires “an objective inquiry into the totality of the circumstances to determine if a reasonable person would believe he or she were free to leave or to refuse to answer police questioning.” State v. Muntean, 12 A.3d 518 (Vt. 2010).

In making that determination, the Vermont Supreme Court has provided a list of non-exhaustive factors to consider: “(1) whether the suspect was told he was free to terminate the conversation and leave; (2) the location of the interview; (3) whether the suspect arrived at the interview voluntarily; (4) the interviewer’s communication to the suspect of his belief in the suspect’s guilt; (5) the extent to which the suspect was confronted with evidence of guilt; (6) whether, and to what degree, the suspect’s freedom of movement was restrained; (7) whether law enforcement used any deceptive techniques to conduct the interview; (8) the degree to which the suspect was isolated from the outside world; (9) duration of the interview; (10) whether the officers were armed; and (11) the number of officers present during the interview.” State v. Lambert, 255 A.3d 747 (Vt. 2021).

The Court then applied the foregoing legal principles to the facts of the case and concluded that Barry was in custody when police questioned her in the store parking lot. The Court explained that the most important factors weighing in favor of a custodial interrogation were: “defendant was not told she was free to leave or could refuse to speak with the officers; she did not come to the interview voluntarily; her freedom of movement was significantly restrained during her discussion with the officers; and police presented her with evidence of guilt during the interview.”

A reasonable person in Barry’s situation would not feel free to leave or refuse to answer the officers’ questions, the Court concluded. Because the officers failed to advise Barry of her Miranda rights prior to the custodial interrogation and thereby violated her Fifth Amendment and Article 10 privilege against self-incrimination, the Court held that her statements must be suppressed.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment granting Barry’s motion to suppress. See: State v. Barry, 267 A.3d 682 (Vt. 2021). 

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