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MIRANDA: Do you know who you are confessing to? (People v. Orozco 2019)

Miranda established the very familiar rule that confessions taken from a suspect who is “in-custody” are only admissible if he was advised of his Miranda rights, waived those rights either expressly or implicitly, and prior to making the confession, did not invoke his right to remain silent or his right to an attorney.  If Miranda is violated, the confession is usually inadmissible, and the jury is left to decide a case without valuable evidence.  The purpose of Miranda is noble:  that no person shall be compelled to be a witness against himself.[i]  In People v. Orozco (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 802, the Court affirmed the trial court’s admission of Defendant Orozco’s confession made to his girlfriend while in police custody after invoking his Miranda right to counsel.

Defendant Orozco was convicted of second-degree murder and assault on a child causing death for the murder of his girlfriend’s 6-month-old daughter, Mia.  Police were called to Mia’s home, where Defendant Orozco lived with his girlfriend.  All were unable to revive Mia who had been left in Defendant’s sole care and custody for the hours leading up to her death.  Defendant voluntarily accompanied police officers to the station.  Defendant met with three officers in the interview room and was told he was “not in custody” and was “free to leave.” In addition, an officer read Defendant his Miranda rights and Defendant indicated he understood them and began answering questions.  Defendant held fast to a story of innocence which failed to provide explanations to the bruises, seven rib fractures, punctured lung and lacerated liver Mia suffered.  He refused a polygraph test and asked for an attorney.  Officers continued to question him.  Defendant maintained his innocence and asked for an attorney four more times.  Defendant was then placed under arrest for the murder of Mia.  An officer then told Defendant, “if you’re willing to talk to us right now without your attorney present and to explain what happened, I’m not going to take you to jail.”[ii]  Defendant asked for an attorney again.

Several hours later, the police allowed Defendant and his girlfriend, Martinez, to meet in an interview room at the police station.  Although police did not tell Martinez specific questions to ask or information to elicit, they did say to remind her that she is Mia’s mother and she has a right to know.  Martinez did believe that she had to report back to officers.  During the conversation between Martinez and Defendant Orozco, Defendant stayed with the same story of Mia dying in her crib.  To “stimulate conversation,” officers entered twice.  The first time, an officer entered and reported that the autopsy showed Mia died at the hands of another, she did not suffocate, she was beaten, and told both parties, “This may be the last time you guys get to talk to each other in person” and “right now both of you are looking at gong to jail for child neglect; causing the death of that baby.”  The officer asked if either person had anything to tell him.  Martinez said, “No”; Defendant remained silent.  Police left the room.  Defendant told Martinez he did not want the police to take her. The second time, police pulled Martinez out of the room and told her that Defendant had refused a polygraph.  Martinez entered the room and asked Defendant about his refusal of the polygraph and he ultimately confessed to hitting and killing Mia.

The Defendant moved for the exclusion of the confession based on Miranda and due process violations.  The court asked three questions: (1) Does a suspect’s invocation of his right to counsel under Miranda preclude admission of his confession to a person he is unaware is functioning as an agent of law enforcement, (2) Does continued questioning after an invocation taint any subsequent confession, and (3) Does the law enforcement conduct in this instance rise to a due process violation.  The Court answered “No” to each question. First, the court held that implicit in the definition of “interrogation” is that the suspect is talking to an agent of law enforcement, and next that defendant is aware he is talking to police or a police agent.  Here, Martinez was deemed an agent of the police.  But the court found that “there is no ‘interrogation’ when a suspect speaks to someone he does not know is an agent of the police.”[iii] Further, Miranda is to prevent coerced confessions and the Court found that there can be no coercion when the Defendant is unaware of any police involvement.  The Appellate Court in Orozco cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Illinois v. Perkins(1990) 496 U.S. 292, 297, emphasizing that “Miranda forbids coercion, not mere strategic deception by taking advantage of a suspect’s misplaced trust in one he supposes to be” someone he can trust.[iv]

Defendant also argued that the confession should be suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree” since officers had violated his Miranda rights by questioning him after he asked for an attorney.  Defense would not have been able to raise this issue if the officers had refrained from questioning the Defendant after he invoked.  They still could have placed him in the room with his girlfriend and still eliminated this issue.  The Court noted that although the questions by officers, not Martinez, were perhaps in violation of Miranda, none of those elicited the confession.  For example, when the officer entered the interview room to tell Martinez and Defendant about the autopsy results and asked if either party had anything to tell him, had Defendant confessed to the officer at that time, that likely would have been suppressible because Defendant had already invoked his right to an attorney, and the officer himself was asking the questions in violation of Miranda.   But since Defendant did not answer, there is nothing to suppress.  Ultimately, defendant’s statements to Martinez were voluntary because he mistakenly believed he was having a private conversation with his girlfriend and had no idea that police were exerting any pressure on him at all.[v]

What does this mean for you?  Let’s be clear, the officers violated Miranda by questioning Defendant after he invoked.  Don’t do that! Luckily the court was able to separate the officer’s Miranda violations with the circumstances evoking the confession. Let’s not cut it so close!  Also, don’t confuse Miranda’s right to counsel with the 6th Amendment right to counsel afforded Defendants who have already been charged.

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