United States v. Master Giddins (4th Cir., 6/6/17) Reversal on Miranda violation issue; Economic Coercion. Robust dissent by Judge Agee.

An incredible win on an interesting issue, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Giddins’s convictions based on a Miranda violation (when was the last time you saw that?!?).  Just a brief chronology of the encounter (which was recorded on video).

  • 10:17am:      Giddins entered the interrogation room and an officer audibly locked the door.
  • 10:21am:      An officer got up, informing Giddins that he needed to finish some paperwork, and left out other door.
  • 10:22 am:     Another officer entered and took over interrogation
  • 10:27am:      Giddins took phone call, but police told him he needed to be “real quick” and then everyone was going to “put their phones up.”
  • 10:28am:      Miranda waiver.
  • 10:30am:      Giddins asked if this was the procedure to get back his car, and the police told him, “yes.”
  • 10:32am:      Giddins signed Miranda.
  • 10:50am:      Giddins invoked his right to counsel and the interrogation ended. was shortly informed that he was under arrest.

The government argued that Giddins was never in custody prior to his arrest, so no Miranda warnings were even necessary.  The Court disagreed. “When deciding whether a defendant not under formal arrest was in custody– and thus if the Miranda requirements apply– a court asks whether ‘under the totality of the circumstances, a suspect’s freedom of action was curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.'” United States v. Hashime, 734 F.3d 278, 282 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Parker, 262 F.3d 415, 419 (4th Cir. 2001).  It is an objective inquiry:  Whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.”  Id. at 282-83.

Facts that the Court found relevant:

1)     The unlocked door was past the detective and Giddins would have had to walk past him to leave;

2)     Twice during the interrogation, a detective moved Giddins’s phone away from him;

3)     The issue of Giddins’s car– a reasonable person would have felt unable to stop the  interview without fear of losing his property.

Therefore, Miranda warnings were necessary.
Here, the Court found that the officer’s coerced Giddins’s Miranda waiver for two reasons:  1) the police made it appear that if Giddins did not answer their questions, he would not be able to get his car back; and 2) Detective Taylor lied to Giddins when Giddins directly asked him if he was in trouble.

The Court found that the officers used economic coercion when they implied they would keep his car. The Court noted that Giddins relied on his car to get him to his job, and that it was the means for maintaining his livelihood.  Also, when Giddins asked the officer whether filing out the Miranda waiver and answering their questions about the car was the normal procedure for getting his car back, they told him, yes.  That was coercive.

Also, an interestingly, while the courts have not held that there’s no duty to advise a defendant of the identity of the specific offense under investigation, it is “affirmative deceit” when a defendant enquires about the nature of the investigation, and the officer intentionally misleads him. In order to prevail on this kind of claim, the “[d]efendant must …prove that the misinformation was material in his decision to speak with the [police],” and “produce clear and convincing evidence that the [police] affirmatively misl[ed] him as to the true nature of their investigation.”  United States v. Serlin, 707 F.2d 953, 956 (7th Cir. 1983).  Here, Giddins asked the officers on two occasions whether he was in trouble, and they told him “no” even though they had an arrest warrant in hand at the time Detective Taylor (the second detective to interrogate Giddins) entered the room.  The Court further found, under the totality of the circumstances, that the police coercion was sufficient to rise to the level that Giddins’s will was overborne or that his capacity for self-determination was critically impaired.

The next part of the analysis is to determine whether or not the error is harmless.  The United States Supreme Court in Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991) identified three considerations to determine if statements taken in violation of the 5th amendment survive harmless error analysis:  1) the importance of the statement to the government’s case, 2) the impact on credibility of other evidence, and 3) the admission of prejudicial evidence based solely on the admission of the statement. The Court rejected the government’s argument that the overwhelming evidence of guilt sufficed to render the error harmless.  The Court notes that it imposes a “higher burden” and “more exacting” test to decide if a constitutional error is harmless.  Concluding that it could not see a way for the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the inadmissible statements did not contribute to the conviction, it reversed the conviction.

Judge Agee writes a thoughtful and detailed dissent finding that Giddins was free to leave (and was therefore not “in custody” for Miranda purposes), denying him access to his car was not economic coercion and that the detectives did not compel or coerce Giddins to speak to them.  I strongly suspect the government will be seeking further review of this case, so keep a look out.