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New Jersey Supreme Court: Edwards Violation When Police Fail to Cease Interrogation After Suspect Makes Ambiguous Invocation of Right to Counsel and ‘Initiates’ Request for Further Communication with Police

by Jacob Barrett

The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that under the Edwards rule the defendant did not “initiate” further communications with police officers at the conclusion of an unlawful interrogation, so all evidence obtained during the subsequent interrogation must be suppressed.

In February 2014, Abayuba Rivas reported to the Elizabeth Police Department (“EPD”) that his wife, Karla Villagra Garzon, was missing. Initially he stated that she had gone to the pharmacy the previous night but never returned. He subsequently provided different accounts of what happened on the evening of her alleged disappearance.

After he was confronted with video footage showing his truck driving around the night he reported her missing, he changed his story, stating his wife may have been having an affair and he went searching for while his two-year-old daughter was left home alone. Following the questioning he was arrested and charged with child endangerment and providing false information to police.

On March 17, while in jail, Rivas attempted suicide and was taken to the hospital. Police visited him at the hospital where they read him his Miranda rights and again questioned him about his wife’s disappearance. Rivas again changed his story, stating he had gone to the pharmacy with his wife, and they were carjacked by several men. Rivas claimed the men kidnapped his wife and threatened him not to contact police. The interrogation ended when medical staff came to treat Rivas, but he asked the officers to “come back.”

On March 18, three officers returned to the hospital to continue the interrogation for another six hours. They instructed Rivas to read his Miranda rights aloud before interrogating him. Although he stated that he understood his rights, he repeatedly asked about his right to an attorney, stating, “Ah a lawyer, I need time to find a lawyer. I need to see how much they charge.” The officers advised him that if he couldn’t afford a lawyer a public defender would be assigned to him. Rivas rejected that idea, saying, “That’s not gonna help me.” The officer assured him that public defenders are “good lawyers” and “always on your side.” But he replied, “No, no, no.” The officers again advised him that he could assert his right to an attorney at any time, but when asked if he understood, he stated, “It’s a little confuse.”

For about the next 30 minutes, the officers engaged Rivas in casual conversation, but he again raised the issue of obtaining a lawyer, asking, “Do you think that I need a lawyer? Because how you say innocent?” There was more back and forth among Rivas and the officers along the same lines where Rivas both indicates he understands that he has a right to a lawyer yet makes comments indicating he’s not entirely sure what that means. Nevertheless, one of the officers finally asks, “Can we talk about what happened with [K]arla?” And Rivas says, “Yeah.”

Rivas eventually confessed to killing Karla, stuffing her body in a suitcase, and then placing her body in a vacant house in Chatam. During the interrogation, he stated, “I’m a murderer…. I defended myself and I hit her wrong, I hit her hard I overdid it and that’s it…. I did something wrong… That is why yesterday I wanted to kill myself.”

After about six hours of questioning, the officers got up to leave, telling Rivas that they were going to look for Karla’s body. He repeatedly told them that he wanted to talk with them the next day. As they were leaving, he again told them “that I need to talk with all of you,” stressing that he wanted to talk about his confiscated cell phone and that “I don’t know what is going on since today to the funeral, I don’t know yet.”

The following day on March 19, Rivas was discharged from the hospital and brought to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. He was read his Miranda rights and advised that someone from the Uruguayan Consulate related that his family was prepared to retain a lawyer to represent him. Despite that information, he waived his rights and told officers that he was willing to speak with them.

Rivas again confessed to killing Karla, adding a few more details than the previous confession. After the videotaped confession, he took the officers to the section of the highway where he abandoned the empty suitcase he used to transport Karla’s body. After it was recovered, he accompanied the officers back to the Prosecutor’s Office where he provided a videotaped statement acknowledging that he voluntarily helped the police locate the suitcase after having been Mirandized yet again.

 Rivas moved the trial court to suppress both his March 18 and March 19 confessions. The trial court granted the motion to suppress the March 18 confession, finding Rivas’ statements were “objectively unclear and ambiguous” and the officers had a duty to either end the interrogation or clarify the request. However, the trial court found the March 19 confession admissible, reasoning Rivas’ repeated requests on March 18 to talk with the officers the next day rendered his March 19 confession sufficiently attenuated from the taint of the suppressed March 18 confession under Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), and State v. Hartley, 511 A.2d 80 (N.J. 1986).

During deliberations, the jury requested the portion of the March 19 interrogation where he confessed to killing Kayla be replayed. The jury acquitted him of murder but convicted him of aggravated manslaughter.

Rivas appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the March 19 confession to the Appellate Division. In an unpublished opinion, the appellate court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress the March 19 confession on the same grounds as the trial court.

The Court began its analysis by noting both the U.S. Constitution and state law guarantee the right against self-incrimination. U.S. Const. amend. V; N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-19. The state protection “offers broader protection than its Fifth Amendment federal counterpart.” State v. O’Neill, 936 A.2d 438 (N.J. 2007).

The U.S. Supreme Court mandated that police must advise suspects who are subject to a custodial interrogation of certain fundamental rights, including the right to an attorney. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The Miranda Court also instructed that when a suspect requests an “attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present.” Id. The Court explained that under New Jersey law “a suspect need not be articulate, clear, or explicit in requesting counsel; any indication of a desire for counsel, however ambiguous, will trigger entitlement to counsel.” State v. Alston, 10 A.3d 880 (N.J. 2011). Even an ambiguous request for counsel means all questioning must stop. Id. 

The U.S. Supreme Court held that once a suspect invokes his right to counsel during a custodial interrogation all questioning must stop and cannot resume “until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges or conversations with the police.” Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981). The Supreme Court explained that “Edwards set forth a ‘bright-line rule’ that all questioning must cease after an accused requests counsel.” Smith v. Illinois, 469 U.S. 91 (1984).

A violation of Edwards by law enforcement requires suppression of even “trustworthy and highly probative evidence,” such as a confession, that might otherwise be deemed voluntary under “traditional Fifth Amendment analysis.” Arizona v. Roberson, 486 U.S. 675 (1988). The Roberson Court explained that Edwards “serves the purpose of providing ‘clear and unequivocal’ guidelines” to police. Id. An Edwards violation is not “subject to an attenuation analysis.” Roberson; State v. Wint, 198 A.3d 963 (N.J. 2018). 

The Court explained that when police don’t respect a suspect’s invocation of his rights and go forward with an interrogation courts hold that the suspect doesn’t “reinitiate” the interrogation when his statements are made during the course of the ongoing interrogation. See, e.g., United States v. Rosenschein, 369 F. Supp. 3d 1147 (D.N.M. 2019). [See Court’s full opinion for several additional examples.]

The Court then discussed United States v. Gomez, 927 F.2d 1530 (11th Cir. 1991). In Gomez, the suspect invoked his right to counsel while in DEA custody. Immediately thereafter, a DEA agent advised the suspect that he faced up to life in prison and the only way to receive a lighter sentence is by cooperating. The suspect subsequently asked another agent why he’d been arrested; the agent said it was for possession of 10 kilograms of cocaine. The suspect then cooperated and confessed after having been advised of his Miranda rights again. The Gomez Court determined that the DEA agents shouldn’t have talked to the suspect about sentencing and benefits of cooperating after he requested counsel. For Edwards purposes, the Gomez Court ruled that the suspect didn’t initiate the interrogation with the agents because “initiation” must precede further interrogation. The agents didn’t honor Edwards and never stopped interrogating the suspect even after the invocation of his right to counsel by telling the suspect how much time he was facing and that cooperating was the only way to reduce his sentence. Thus, the Gomez Court suppressed the suspect’s confession.

Turning to the present case, the Court stated that the focus is on “the voluntariness of Rivas’s initiated discussions with the detectives” as they were leaving his hospital room. It explained that after Rivas’ equivocal invocation of his right to counsel – which should have stopped any further questioning under New Jersey law – the officers interrogated him for six straight hours, during which he confessed and offered to help locate his wife’s body, and while he was “under the sway of an unlawful interrogation and tainted confession,” he wasn’t capable of “freely and voluntarily” reinitiating conversations with officers for the following day. See Rosenschein; see also Gomez. Under the Edwards line of cases, the officers never stopped interrogating Rivas, and his alleged “initiation” of further communications with them for the following day was made during that same unlawful interrogation, like in Gomez. Consequently, the Court ruled that the officers had no lawful authority to interrogate Rivas on March 19.  

Thus, the Court held that “in light of the Edwards violation and in the absence of Rivas voluntarily initiating further communications with the detectives, the March 19 statements must be suppressed.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded for proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Rivas, 276 A.3d 143 (N.J. 2022). 

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