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  • WisBar News
    September 26, 2014

    Court Distinguishes “Statements” and “Physical Evidence” in Miranda Case

    Sept. 26, 2014 – Prison officials knew that visitor Marie Ezell could be delivering contraband to a prisoner when they detained her and called police. Recently, a state appeals court ruled that police violated her Miranda rights, but upheld her conviction on the basis that “physical evidence” did not need to be suppressed.

    In State v. Ezell, 2013AP2178-CR (Sept. 17, 2014), a three-judge panel for the District II Court of Appeals ruled that officers did not give a required Miranda warning, but the violation was not coercive, so suppressing “physical” evidence was not warranted.

    Prison staff learned of Ezell’s plans while monitoring prisoner phone calls. They believed she used coded language to inform her boyfriend that she would deliver contraband to him at her next visit. Prison staff approached her when she visited.

    A prison officer took her to a locked room with no windows and began to question Ezell, who confessed that she was carrying two balloons of “K2,” a name for synthetic pot.

    She also admitted the crime to a police officer who arrived and began questioning her without giving her any Miranda warning. She was arrested and taken to a hospital for a body search, which revealed the two K2 balloons and four more with regular marijuana.

    The state charged Ezell with possession with intent to deliver THC and attempt to deliver illegal contraband to a prison inmate. In court, Ezell challenged the statements and the evidence on the ground that she did not receive a required Miranda warning.

    The state argued correctional officers are not state actors, and even if there was a Miranda violation, it was unintentional and it was inevitable that police would find the drugs. The circuit court denied Ezell’s motion to suppress the statements and evidence.

    The circuit court ruled that Ezell was not “in custody” when questioned and thus a Miranda warning was not required. However, the circuit court also ruled that police conducted a “custodial interrogation” at the hospital when the officer tried to elicit more information. The court suppressed the statements she made to police at the hospital.

    Ezell ultimately pled no contest and appealed. The panel explained that “the law forbids police from interrogating suspects held in custody unless the subject of the questioning is first advised of his or her right to remain silent, i.e., given the Miranda warnings.”

    The panel also noted that actual statements made in custodial interrogations without Miranda warnings are not admissible against the defendant. But for physical evidence, suppression of evidence is not automatic if there was no “actual coercion.”

    “The Wisconsin Constitution does not require suppression of physical evidence obtained ‘as a direct result of an intentional violation of Miranda,” wrote Chief Appeals Court Judge Richard Brown. “[B]ut in the absence of coercion or intentional violation of the suspect’s rights, there is no basis for suppressing physical evidence.”

    Unlike the circuit court, the three-judge appeals panel ruled that Ezell was “in custody” when questioned at the prison because “a reasonable person would consider herself to be in custody,” and the determination is made from the suspect’s point of view.

    The panel also noted that prison officials who aren’t law enforcement officers “may still violate Miranda by engaging in questioning designed to elicit incriminating information for law enforcement purposes,” Chief Judge Brown wrote.

    Thus, the court ruled that Ezell’s incriminating statements at the prison should have been suppressed, but it wasn’t necessary to suppress the physical evidence.

    “Suppressing the contraband would not deter what amounts to negligent violation of Miranda,” noting that prison officer’s don’t generally perform custodial interrogations. 

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