North Carolina Supreme Court Rules That Juvenile’s Request to Call Mother During Custodial Interrogation Was Not Clear Invocation of Statutory Right to Consult a Parent or Guardian To Bar Further Interrogation

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Two months ago, the North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Saldierna, ___ N.C. ___, 794 S.E.2d (Dec. 21, 2016), reversed the North Carolina Court of Appeals, State v. Saldierna, ___ N.C. App. ___, 775 S.E.2d 326 (2015), and ruled that a juvenile’s request to call his mother during custodial interrogation was not a clear invocation of the statutory right to consult a parent or guardian that would bar officers from conducting or continuing to conduct interrogation. This post discusses this ruling.

Legal background. The United States Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1966), required officers before conducting custodial interrogation of a suspect to give a four-part warning (right to remain silent; use of any statement in court; right to have lawyer present; right to appointed lawyer if indigent). In later rulings, the Court ruled that when a suspect made a clear assertion of the right to counsel or to remain silent, an officer must stop the interrogation. However, an ambiguous assertion does not. For a discussion of these and related issues, see pages 570-86 in Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (5th ed. 2016).

In addition to federal constitutional requirements, officers must also comply with state statutory requirements (G.S. 7B-2101) when conducting a custodial interrogation of a juvenile. 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 juvenile 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 juvenile less than 16 years old, a statement obtained during custodial interrogation is not admissible in court unless the juvenile’s parent, guardian, custodian, or attorney is present during the interrogation. If an attorney is not present, the officers must inform the parent, guardian, or custodian of the juvenile’s rights, although that person may not waive those rights on the juvenile’s behalf.

The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Smith, 317 N.C. 100 (1986), extended the scope of juvenile statutory rights by applying the ruling of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) (assertion of right to counsel requires officers to immediately stop custodial interrogation), to a juvenile’s assertion of the statutory right to have a parent present during custodial interrogation and ruled that the resumption of questioning in the absence of counsel or a parent was improper in Smith. (For case summaries on juvenile statutory rights, see pages 684-86 in Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (5th ed. 2016).)

Facts in State v. Saldierna. Officers arrested a sixteen year old (defendant Saldierna) for breaking and entering offenses. He was properly informed of his constitutional and statutory interrogation rights and agreed to answer questions. But then he asked, “Um, can I call my mom?” An officer offered her cell phone to him, and he made some calls outside the room where interrogation was taking place. He did not contact his mother but he did speak to others. Upon his return to the room, the officer resumed her questioning. He did not object to the questioning and made no further request to contact anyone. During the ensuing interview, he confessed to committing the offenses.

Legal proceedings. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress his confession. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. It found that the defendant’s statement “Um, can I call my mom?” was an ambiguous request for his mother to be present during questioning. However, it concluded that, unlike an adult’s invocation of Miranda rights to counsel or to remain silent, a juvenile need not make a clear and unequivocal request to exercise the statutory right to have a parent present during questioning. It ruled that when a juvenile makes an ambiguous statement that potentially pertains to the right to have a parent present, an officer must clarify the juvenile’s intention before proceeding with questioning.

The state supreme court reversed the court of appeals. The court reviewed its prior case law and applied the same standard as the federal constitutional right to counsel in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994) (ambiguous request for counsel does not require officer to stop interrogation) to a juvenile’s statutory right to have a parent or guardian present during questioning. That is, an ambiguous request for a parent or guardian does not require an officer to stop interrogation. See also State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364 (2000) (juvenile defendant made an ambiguous request to remain silent, and an officer’s continuation of interrogation did not violate the defendant’s rights). The court then noted that although defendant Saldierna asked to call his mother, he never indicated that he wanted to have her present during questioning, nor did he condition his interrogation on first speaking to her. Instead, he simply asked to call her. As in Davis, without an unambiguous invocation of the defendant’s right to have a parent or guardian present under G.S. 7B-2101, the officer had no duty to ask clarifying questions or to stop questioning. Thus, on this issue the officer did not violate Saldierna’s rights.

For text and case summaries on unambiguous and ambiguous requests for counsel or the right to remain silent, see pages 579-80, 657-76, and 684-885 in Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (5th ed. 2016).

Comment. Sometimes it may be difficult to determine whether a defendant’s statement is an unambiguous or ambiguous request for counsel or the right to remain silent. Officers who are uncertain should consider, if there is time to do so, consulting with their agency’s legal advisor or other legal source before proceeding with the interrogation.

4 comments on “North Carolina Supreme Court Rules That Juvenile’s Request to Call Mother During Custodial Interrogation Was Not Clear Invocation of Statutory Right to Consult a Parent or Guardian To Bar Further Interrogation

  1. Why not simply advise law enforcement officers to honor and respect the constitutional and statutory rights of citizens and simply allow a child to talk to a parent, or an accused person to consult with an attorney? That is always safe. Don’t we want our government’s representatives to show respect for our own laws?

    • In the above case, the officers did allow the juvenile to call, they gave him a cell phone and allowed the juvenile to make several phone calls. Where exactly in this case did the LEOs violate the Constitution or Statutory Laws? I for one want my government to act within the law and US Constitution, which these officers did. As a former investigator, I would interview people on a regular basis. Some waived their rights and provided statements and some didn’t. That’s how our system works. I am okay with a person who des not wish to make a statement or speak to me. It’s their right, as much as it’s my right to ask questions if they waive their rights or do not request a lawyer, parent, guardian or other witness allowed by law.

  2. Let’s not call this one a wrap yet. The Supremes denied the case on statutory grounds but remanded to the COA on a viable constitutional law question on the same issue.

  3. […] Interrogations.  Last week Bob had a post discussing the North Carolina Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Saldierna that a juvenile’s […]

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