People v. Elizalde

by Charles Gillingham

Recently, the California Supreme Court ruled on People v. Elizalde. The lower court ruled that an unMirandized booking statement that addressed the defendant's gang status was a violation of Miranda warnings and was inadmissible in the prosecution's case-in-chief.  Gang prosecutors were hopeful the Cal Supremes would  overrule that decision---in vain.  





Multiple defendants were convicted in a gang murder.[1] Three witnesses testified the defendant was a Sureno gang member.  A gang expert also testified that defendant was a Sureno gang member. 


Sureno gang members were instructed to "put in work."  On three occasions defendant with other surenos went into gang territory and murdered three victims and attempted to murder two others. The defendant was convicted of three murders along with other charges as well as several gang enhancements.




At trial defendant moved to exclude his admission of gang membership during booking and classification at the jail.  Every gang related inmate is routinely asked whether they have gang affiliation and whether they are fearful of their safety.  As is well known, classification at the jail review all relevant information and house rival gang members separately. 


After his arrest and before he received Miranda warning defendant was asked standard booking questions and defendant admitted he was a Sureno gang member.  When he was told he would be searched for contraband the defendant laughed and said he was in for things he didn't do...that he didn't kill anyone...somebody was trying to bring him down...that he was a gang-banger but not a murderer...when asked whether he wanted to speak to a detective defendant agreed...after he spoke with an attorney. 


Defendant was then interviewed by a classification deputy for "housing."  Defendant was not advised of his rights, the deputy knew defendant was in for a murder but did not know whether defendant was charged with murder.  The deputy testified he was only asking questions to insure the safety of the institution and the defendant.  He was not doing an investigation of the charges.  The defendant told the deputy he was a Sureno street gang and that he was an active member. 


At trial the trial court allowed the statements to be admitted.  The Court of Appeal reversed the decision but upheld the conviction. 




The Court reviewed the booking question exception and agreed that it continues.  The only question is the extent of the exception.  The court also reviewed the  familiar prongs of Miranda; custody and interrogation.  The first prong was clear, but are classification questions interrogation? Under these facts the court held that they are.  


The Court held that a question regarding gang affiliation could not be viewed in the same way as pedigree questions (name, dob, address etc.).  The Court held that gang membership carries penal consequences.  The Court found that while it is important for the custodial institution to know whether the defendant is gang affiliated and the questioning may be only for those purposes-the questions are still calling for an incriminating response and thus violate Miranda.


 As a result, while the questions are important and can and should continue to be asked, they may not be used in the prosecution case-in-chief.  What that means is the prosecution cannot elicit that information from the classification officer; that a gang expert may rely on the statement in forming their opinion but may not quote it in their direct examination and any other references to unMirandized responses may not be used in the case-in-chief.  Officers should still be asking the questions, documenting responses and providing that information to investigating officers and experts.  The jury may just never hear the information.  [2]


[1] Three defendants were convicted of murdering multiple victims in multiple acts.  Defendant Mota was actually the subject of the appeal.  It is irrelevant for our purposes here which defendant the court references. 


[2] The Court held any error to be harmless.  The defendant received 100 to life.