Supreme Court Overturns Court of Appeals on Miranda Rights Case
By com dspanic gmail Deborah Spanic, legal writer
Aug. 16, 2012 – In State of Wisconsin v. Randy L. Martin, 2012 WI 96 (July 13, 2012), the Supreme Court overturned the court of appeals on an issue of whether a criminal defendant’s statements should have been suppressed at trial since he was not read his Miranda rights.
Martin was charged with one count of possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of Wis. Stat. §941.29(2) and one count of carrying a concealed weapon in violation of §941.23. The jury at trial found Martin guilty on both counts.
The court found that Martin made incriminating statements while in police custody and while being subjected to interrogation by police officers, and therefore had a constitutional right to receive a Miranda warning. As he was not warned, it was error to admit those statements at trial, and that error was not harmless.
While at a stoplight, Martin exited his vehicle and was observed by Milwaukee Police Sgt. James Fidler initiating an altercation with the driver of the car in front of his. He retrieved an object from his jacket pocket and pointed it at the other driver, saying “I have something, I’ve got something for you.” Fidler called Martin toward him and placed him in handcuffs.
Upon searching Martin, Fidler found an expandable baton in his pocket. As Fidler was completing his search of Martin, two other officers, Hollis Smith and Andrew Moutry, approached the scene and asked Fidler if they could assist. Fidler asked them to search the SUV Martin was driving.
On approaching the SUV, Smith discovered Lee Roy Henry seated in the passenger seat. Smith searched the SUV, where he found a loaded .22 caliber revolver concealed in a small pullout tray under the passenger seat. Smith removed the entire tray with the revolver still inside.
At trial, Smith testified he carried the tray over to Martin and Henry and asked them who the owner of the revolver was. Neither man had received a Miranda warning. Both men denied ownership. Smith then told Henry, who was “sitting basically on top of the weapon” that he was placing him under arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.
Martin asked the officers whether they would let Henry go if he (Martin) admitted the revolver belonged to him. In response, Smith told Martin he did not want him to say it was his if it was not, but he should be a “stand-up guy” and admit the revolver was his if it was. Martin then told Smith the revolver belonged to him. Based on that admission the police arrested Martin and chose not to arrest Henry.
At trial Martin sought to suppress his statements to the police, arguing that Martin should have been Mirandized before being engaged in custodial questioning.
The circuit court decided that because Martin’s response to the first question was exculpatory, and Martin’s question regarding why the officers were taking Henry into custody was not in response to a question, there was no violation of Miranda. The circuit court denied the motion to suppress, and Martin was convicted by the jury.
Martin appealed, and the court of appeals found that Smith’s comments to Martin at both points during the encounter were not “designed with the aim of eliciting incriminating testimony,” and therefore no violation of Miranda had occurred. Martin then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The court first addressed the issue of whether a Miranda violation occurred, and as the court found that it did, it then determined whether the error was harmless. The court found it was not.
In Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment requires that the government may not use statements stemming from custodial interrogation of a defendant unless it demonstrated use of certain procedural safeguards. A suspect cannot be subject to custodial interrogation until he is “warned he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.”
The court noted that it is undisputed in this case that Martin was never advised of his Miranda rights. The dispute is whether he was subject to custodial interrogation at the time he made the incriminating statements.
Justice Michael Gableman notes in the court’s decision. “Law enforcement has custody over a suspect within the meaning of Miranda where a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the interview and leave the scene.”
The court made clear that the use of handcuffs does not in all situations render a suspect in custody for Miranda purposes. In fact Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson chose to elaborate on this discussion in her concurrence, in particular the well-established principle that police may conduct brief stops, such as traffic stops, of individuals during which a reasonable suspect may not feel free to leave but which do not require Miranda warnings.
In this case, however officer Fidler testified that when he placed handcuffs on Martin he was arresting him for disorderly conduct. The court found that because Martin had been placed under arrest, was in handcuffs, and was being questioned by the police (but not as part of an investigative stop or for officer safety reasons) that his freedom to leave was curtailed and therefore he was in custody within the meaning of Miranda.
The question then followed whether Martin was subject to interrogation, which in this context occurs when the police ask a question of a suspect that is “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.” The exchange at issue is when Smith presented Martin with the revolver and asked whether it belonged to him. In the court’s opinion, it was “a prototypical example of police interrogation.” The court then held that Martin was in custody while being interrogated, and the officers should have advised him of his Miranda rights. Therefore Martin’s statements were inadmissible at trial.
In reviewing whether the error was harmless, the State has the burden, as the beneficiary of the error, to demonstrate that “it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found the defendant guilty absent the error.”
Here, the court found the State did not meet its burden. Indeed, Justice Gableman noted, “the strength of the State’s case is inextricably tied to Martin’s statements.” Without Martin’s statements, the State “would have had the unenviable task of attempting to prove – with no direct evidence – that Martin had knowing control of the revolver.”
The court concluded by holding that Martin had a Fifth Amendment right to receive a Miranda warning before interrogation, and that it was then error to admit those incriminating statements at trial. Further, the court held that the State had not met its burden of proving that the error was not harmless. The court of appeals was reversed and the cause was remanded for new trial.