Confessions and Custody

The Court of Appeals decided two Miranda cases last week: In re J.D.B, available here, and State v. Rooks, available here. The former is a very close juvenile case that produced three separate opinions. I’ll save my thoughts about it for after we hear from the Supreme Court of North Carolina. But there’s an argument in Rooks that is worth discussing now.

The facts of Rooks are as follows. Mr. Rooks’s wife called the police after she saw Mr. Rooks sexually abusing their daughter. Detective Kivett went to the Rooks’ residence where he found Mr. Rooks talking to a relative. Detective Kivett asked introduced himself to Mr. Rooks and asked him to come to his patrol car. Mr. Rooks agreed. He sat in the front seat of the patrol car. He wasn’t handcuffed, and the doors were unlocked. Deputy Kivett told him that he wasn’t under arrest.

Almost immediately, Mr. Rooks admitted molesting his daughter. Over the course of the next hour, Deputy Kivett questioned Mr. Rooks, and Mr. Rooks made incriminating statements. Eventually, he signed a written confession. At no time did Deputy Kivett read Mr. Rooks his Miranda rights.

Mr. Rooks was charged with a number of sex-related offenses. He moved to suppress both his oral statements and the written confession on the grounds that they were the product of custodial interrogation conducted without Miranda warnings. A superior court judge largely agreed, and ordered most of the oral statements suppressed, together with the written confession.

The state appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. For the most part, the custody analysis proceeded along familiar lines: the court acknowledged, as the superior court found, that several officers were at the Rooks’ home and that Mr. Rooks hung his head and appeared to believe that he was in trouble. But it noted that Mr. Rooks’s subjective belief about whether he was free to leave was irrelevant, thereby discounting the head-hanging, and it ruled that the indicia of freedom, such as the lack of handcuffs and Detective Kivett’s explicit statement that Mr. Rooks was not under arrest, outweighed the fact that several officers were on the scene. Thus, the court found that Mr. Rooks was not in custody, and that Miranda warnings were not required.

None of that analysis is noteworthy, and to this point, Rooks isn’t a very close case. But the defendant made an interesting argument on appeal. He claimed that even if he wasn’t in custody when he first entered the cruiser, he was in custody once he admitted molesting his daughter. In other words, he asserted that no reasonable person would believe that he would be free to leave after admitting to a serious crime. Thus, he argued, the interrogation turned custodial at that point, and any statements after that juncture were obtained in violation of Miranda.

As authority, the defendant cited State v. Buchanan, 365 N.C. 264 (2002). In Buchanan, an officer asked the defendant to come to the police station to discuss a double homicide. The defendant agreed, and drove himself to the station. He wasn’t handcuffed; was told that he was free to leave; and was allowed to use the restroom unsupervised. He wasn’t given the Miranda warnings. He made some incriminating statements, then asked to use the restroom again. This time, two officers escorted him to the restroom. Afterwards, the defendant made more incriminating statements and signed a written confession. The trial judge found that the defendant was in custody as of the second restroom trip, and suppressed the defendant’s subsequent statements and his written confession. The Supreme Court of North Carolina affirmed.

In Rooks, the defendant argued that the defendant in Buchanan was in custody after he made his initial incriminating statements, because no reasonable person would feel free to leave after admitting to a double murder. But the Rooks court disagreed, finding that the key to Buchanan wasn’t the incriminating statements themselves, but rather the increased level of security that they prompted: after the statements, the defendant was escorted to the bathroom, when he had previously been allowed to go alone. According to the Rooks court, the increased level of security was what made the Buchanan situation custodial, and since Deputy Kivett didn’t increase the level of security after Mr. Rooks made his admissions, their interaction , unlike the one in Buchanan, never became custodial.

That seems like a reasonable interpretation of Buchanan. But it also seems like the right result for another reason that the Rooks court didn’t mention. The idea that a suspect’s admissions can turn a non-custodial situation into a custodial one would create serious problems in administration. Officers aren’t likely to be able to identify the precise moment at which a suspect’s admissions have gone “too far,” such that Miranda warnings are necessary. Requiring an officer to determine whether the suspect’s admissions (or retractions) have made the interaction custodial (or non-custodial) would impose the sort of non-bright-line responsibility on officers that the United States Supreme Court has long opposed. Thus, although the Rooks court didn’t put it quite this way, it probably follows that a single, uninterrupted interview is either custodial or non-custodial as a whole. Only when the interview is interrupted by a change in circumstances — as it was in Buchanan when additional security measures were taken — can an interview move from non-custodial to custodial.

As I just said, the Rooks court didn’t put things quite that way, and I suspect that some of you read Rooks differently and/or disagree with the practical concerns I expressed. If so, please post a comment — it’s an interesting issue, ripe for discussion.

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