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Miranda: When “atmosphere” equals custody (People v. Saldana)

When do you know the Court of Appeal just does not like your case? The first clue is when the opinion starts with them describing the Defendant in a most favorable light: “A 58-year-old legal Mexican immigrant with a sixth grade education,” who has worked the same job for 24 years and has “no notable criminal history.” Also, when the court finds the defense expert to be a “credible expert.” And the final clue is when the Court of Appeal describes the victims in a less favorable light, noting that they “live in a trailer park” and that “from the outset, the veracity of the children’s claims was open to question,” and summarizes their testimony as “less than reliable.” With the temperature for the case clearly set, the Court of Appeal in People v. Saldana (2018) 19 Cal.App.5th 432, reversed the jury’s verdict, finding that the admission of Defendant’s confession was erroneous because Defendant was in custody during the interrogation and was not given Miranda warnings.

Defendant lived in the same trailer park in San Diego County as the victims aged 11, 8 and 6. Victims accused Defendant of touching their vaginal area, sometimes under the underwear and sometimes over. After the detective reviewed the children’s interviews, he went to Defendant’s trailer to interview him. He was not home. The detective left his card asking Defendant to call him. A few days later, Defendant contacted the detective and agreed to meet at the police station. The detective conducted the interview in Spanish. Only one detective was present. He did not advise Defendant of his Miranda rights, but instead told Defendant he was not under arrest, he was free to leave when he wanted, and that “we’re not going to arrest you right now… the front door is open to go out without – without us arresting you.” However, the interview room door was closed, but not locked, during the entire interview.

Defendant was not handcuffed. The detective was polite and courteous and never yelled at the Defendant. The detective never threatened Defendant. The interview was only 53 minutes total, with the Defendant’s confession occurring 38 minutes into the interview. At the end of the interview, the Defendant did leave, and was arrested about a block from the police station.

The Interview
The interview started with the detective gathering some background information, and then launched into questions geared towards eliciting Defendant’s admission that he molested the girls. The Defendant denied having touched the girls. The detective, as trained to do so, used various interview techniques to elicit the truth. The Court characterized these questioning techniques as minimizing, accusatory, false evidence, and less culpable scenario. With every denial by the Defendant, the detective suggested he was not being truthful. He never accused him directly of lying. 38 minutes into the questioning, the detective said, “Something happened. That’s why you’re here with me,” to which Defendant responded that he touched them when they would sit on his hand, but it was not his intention. Saldana claimed it happened spontaneously while they would play on the sofa. He denied a sexual intent, but said “the devil got in me, but no… no other intentions.”

Miranda warnings are required to be given when we have both interrogation and custody. Here, the detective did not give Miranda warnings, although he interrogated the suspect, because the Defendant was not in custody. Ironically, the Court of Appeal found that it was this very interrogation that caused the second prong of custody to exist. Courts have previously identified factors relevant to determining if a suspect is considered “in custody” during police questioning: (1) who initiated the contact, and if police, did person voluntarily agree to an interview; (2) is purpose of interview to question the person as a witness or suspect; (3) where the interview takes place; (4) did police tell person he was under arrest or in custody; (5) did police inform person they could terminate the interview or leave at any time; (6) were there restrictions on person’s freedom of movement during the interview; (7) how long the interrogation lasted; (8) how many officers present; (9) if officers dominated and controlled the interrogation; (10) whether they manifested a belief that the person was culpable and they had evidence to prove it; (11) were police aggressive, confrontational, and/or accusatory; (12) did police use interrogation techniques to pressure the suspect; (13) was person arrested at end of interrogation.

In this case, the Court of Appeal decided almost all these factors in a negative light, finding they created a custodial environment. It even opined that the shortness of the interview was unfavorable because the detective’s questions were no longer “open-ended questions to hear his version of what happened.” Every factor that was objectively favorable was followed by a “however.” In determining if a person is in custody, the issue is not whether he was told he could leave, but rather if a reasonable person would have felt he was at liberty to end the interrogation and leave. The Court of Appeal here often cites In re Elias V. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 568, an analysis of Miranda in a juvenile case. As the Court noted Defendant’s 6th grade education, the situation here tends to be treated more akin to how a juvenile interrogation might be analyzed. The Court of Appeal stated that it is appropriate for police to use these interrogation techniques. “However, when police create an atmosphere equivalent to that of formal arrest by questioning a suspect who is isolated behind closed doors in a police station interrogation room, by repeatedly confronting him with the evidence against him, repeatedly dismissing his denials, and telling him at the outset he is free to leave-when all the objective circumstances later are to the contrary – Miranda is triggered. Ironically, at the same time the Court of Appeals cites statistics on false confessions leading to wrongful convictions, they also note that the tactics used by the detective “are not unusual, nor are they unreasonable. In fact, if Saldana had been properly Mirandized and made the same confession, it might be called good police work.”

What does this mean for you? I suppose since the detective metaphorically told Defendant the door was open, he should have left the door open. Or he could have Mirandized him… but in reality, I’m not sure any of that would have helped. Reasonable minds can differ about the application of the various factors, but the more troubling the Court of Appeal finds your fact pattern, the stricter the application of those factors.

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