Warnken, LLC Attorneys at Law, Attorneys & Lawyers, Pikesville, MD

Thomas v. State – Miranda and Confessions

In Thomas v. State, the Defendant was suspected of sexually abusing his step-daughter and at the request of the police, travelled to the police station to speak with officers about the suspected crime.  While en route to the police station, the Defendant’s wife spoke with him via telephone and informed him that he was going to be questioned about his suspected abuse of his step-daughter.  Nonetheless, the Defendant proceeded to the station for questioning.

Upon arriving at the station, the Defendant was placed in an interview room, told that he was not under arrest, and that the door to the interview room was unlocked.  The Defendant was not told that he was free to leave at any time.  The Defendant was then questioned by two male detectives, who were polite and courteous.  The detectives’ questions focused on the abuse of the Defendant’s stepdaughter and eventually the Defendant admitted to sexual contact with her.  The Defendant was arrested twenty minutes after the interview.  The Defendant was not read his Miranda rights prior to, or during, the detectives’ questioning.

Before trial, the Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress his statements regarding the sexual abuse of his step-daughter, arguing that the police violated Miranda by not reading him his rights prior to a custodial interrogation.  The Circuit Court granted that Motion after finding that the Defendant was in custody at the time of the questioning and had not been read his Miranda rights.  The Circuit Court reasoned that the Defendant was in custody because “no reasonable person would have thought that they could get up and walk out of [the interview] room after they confessed to committing a violent crime.  That is just completely unreasonable to think that anybody would think they could go into a police station, sit down in an interrogation room, admit a violent crime and [think] they’re free to leave.”

The State appealed pursuant to section 12-302(c)(3)(i) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article and the Court of Special Appeals reversed in State v. Thomas, 202 Md. App. 545 (2011), after finding that the Defendant was not in custody at the time of his statements.  The Court of Appeals granted certiorari to consider whether a person is in custody for the purposes of Miranda if, prior to questioning, the police have enough evidence to make an arrest and the suspect is aware of this fact.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting that the Circuit Court erred in failing to consider the totality of the circumstances for the purposes of determining Miranda custody as required by Owens v. State, 399 Md. 388 (2007) and Whitfield v. State, 287 Md. 124 (1980):

The suppression judge . . . while acknowledging the totality test, did not follow the roadmap provided in Whitfield and Owens.  Rather, the judge based his conclusion that Thomas was initially in custody on the bases that Thomas was at the police state and that he later confessed.  If confession was the trigger for custody, however, then each person who confesses in a police station must have been given Miranda warnings per se, which is without basis in Miranda jurisprudence.

(citing United States v. Chee, 514 F.3d 1106, 1114 (10th Cir. 2008); Locke v. Cattell, 476 F.3d 46, 53 (1st Cir. 2007); Commonwealth v. Hilton, 823 N.E.2d 383, 397 (Mass. 2005); State v. Oney, 989 A.2d 995, 999-1000 (Vt. 2009)).

Upon its own review of the facts and the totality of the circumstances, the Court of Appeals found that the Defendant was not in custody at the time of his interview with the police based upon the fact that: (1) the Defendant had driven himself to the police station; (2) the interview occurred in a child interview room with stuffed animals and couches, i.e., was not intimidating; (3) there were only two officers present and those officers were “polite,” “courteous,” and “respectful,” were not carrying weapons, and were not in uniform; (4) the Defendant was never physically restrained; (5) the Defendant was aware that he was a suspect before the interview commenced; (6) there was no change in the “atmosphere” of the room after the Defendant confessed; and (7) the interviewing detective did not intend to place the Defendant under arrest before the interview.

Moreover, the Court made explicit that the fact that a suspect knows the police have enough evidence to arrest him at the time of the interview is not dispositive as to whether the suspect is in custody, because “assumptions regarding the state of the evidence against [a suspect] is irrelevant in a Miranda analysis.”  (citing Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994) (per curiam)).  The custody analysis under Miranda focuses on the objective circumstances of the questioning, thus, beliefs and assumptions “predicated upon uncommunicated thoughts . . . cannot form the basis for requiring Miranda warnings, as the Supreme Court recognized in Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 [] (1984).”