North Carolina Court of Appeals Finds That Erroneous Completion of Juvenile Waiver of Rights Form Did Not Bar Admissibility of Confession

Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Watson (October 18, 2016) ruled that an officer’s erroneous completion of a juvenile waiver of rights form did not bar the admissibility of the juvenile’s confession. This post will discuss North Carolina statutory law concerning juvenile warnings and rights and the Watson ruling.

General background. North Carolina law provides statutory warnings and rights to a young person that provides the person with additional protections beyond the federal constitutional warnings and rights set out in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and later cases.

If officers arrest a person who is 14, 15, 16, or 17 years old and who is not a member of the armed forces or emancipated (a person under age 18 is emancipated if the person is married or has been released from parental control by court order), they must advise the person of the right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian present during questioning—in addition to giving Miranda warnings. If officers take into custody a person less than 16 years old, a statement obtained during custodial interrogation is not admissible in court unless the youngster’s parent, guardian, custodian, or attorney is present during the interrogation. (S.L. 2015-58, effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2015, amended G.S. 7B-2101(b) to increase the person’s age from less than 14 years old to less than 16 years old.) If an attorney is not present, the officers must inform the parent, guardian, or custodian of the youngster’s rights, although that person may not waive those rights on the youngster’s behalf.

For case summaries on juvenile issues involving custodial interrogation, see pages 606-608 and 640-42 in Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011) and page 97 in the 2015 Cumulative Supplement. A new fifth edition that replaces the fourth edition and its cumulative supplement will be available this winter and likely as early as this December.

State v. Watson. The sixteen year old defendant (Watson) was arrested for attempted armed robbery and taken to a law enforcement facility for interrogation. The interrogating officer learned that Watson resided with his mother. The officer orally and accurately explained to Watson his juvenile custodial interrogation rights, including the right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian during questioning, specially mentioning his mother’s name. The officer then showed Watson the waiver of rights form. He explained to Watson that he could read it, the form covered everything the officer had explained to him orally, and Watson would need to initial it at the appropriate places acknowledging that he understood his rights and select one of two boxes specifying that he is electing to answer questions.

However, before handing the form to Watson, the officer had erroneously filled in the first box that essentially explained that his mother was with him now and Watson understood his rights as explained by the officer and he wished to answer questions now. Watson initialed each of the five rights listed on the form and also the first box. The second box, which the officer should have been checked, stated that he wished to answer questions now without a lawyer, parent, guardian, or custodian present. Watson then made incriminating statements concerning the attempted robbery.

Watson moved to suppress his incriminating statements on the ground that they were obtained in violation of his constitutional and statutory rights. The trial court denied his motion. It found that the defendant’s mother was not present, the defendant did not request his mother’s presence, and the indication that his mother was present was an error both by the officer and defendant in initialing the first rather than the second box. The court additionally found that the defendant was advised of his rights, there was no credible evidence of a request for his mother’s presence, and his waiver of rights was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling. In brief, the court stated that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s initial next to the first box was merely an error is consistent with the factual finding that the defendant did not indicate that he wanted his mother to be present. In making these two findings, the trial court resolved conflicts in evidence, a role exclusive to the trier of fact. That the evidence could have been interpreted differently, as the defendant argued, is not a basis to reverse the trial court. The court held that the factual findings supported the conclusion that the defendant did not invoke his right to have his mother present and validly waived the right to have a parent present during the interrogation.

The court also ruled that a recent ruling of the court of appeals in State v. Saldierna, ___ N.C. App. ___, 775 S.E.2d 326, review allowed, 368 N.C. 356 (2015) (juvenile’s ambiguous statement concerning the right to have his or her parent present triggers a requirement that the interviewing officer clarify the juvenile’s meaning), has no application to Watson because he never invoked, even ambiguously, his right to have his mother present for questioning.

Comments. As you can discern from the issues in Watson, the court of appeals relied heavily on the trial court’s findings in making its ruling. And although there was an error in completing the waiver form, it did not result in suppression of the incriminating statements because there was evidence that the defendant’s rights were not adversely affected. Of course, a case with different facts may result in the suppression of incriminating statements.

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