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  • WisBar News
    October 20, 2014

    Juvenile’s Unrecorded Confession Admissible under Public Safety Exception

    Oct. 20, 2014 – A 14-year-old named Joel admitted to his involvement in robbing a woman at knifepoint in Milwaukee, but later argued that the admission wasn’t recorded by police and thus could not be admitted as evidence. Recently, a state appeals court disagreed.

    In State v. Joel I.-N., 2014AP610 (Oct. 7, 2014), a three-judge panel for the District I Court of Appeals ruled that exigent public-safety circumstances allowed police to question Joel without recording the conversation, which is normally required.

    Under Wis. Stat. section 938.31(b), statements made by juveniles during custodial interrogation are not generally admissible in evidence “unless an audio and visual recording was made.” However, there are exceptions to this rule.

    One exception, under section 931.31(3)(c)(5), is that statements are admissible if “exigent public safety circumstances existed that prevented the making of an audio or audio and visual recording or rendered the making of such a recording infeasible.”

    The state argued that an exigent public safety circumstance existed when police interrogated Joel, because they were still looking for other robbery suspects in the area.

    After Joel and another teenager admittedly robbed the woman at knifepoint, they ran into the West Allis area outside West Milwaukee. A K-9 Unit responded and tracked Joel to a backyard where he was hiding under a tarp. He did not respond when police ordered him to come out, so they released the dog, which dragged him out by his legs.

    Because was bitten, police protocol required a transport to the hospital. An officer accompanied Joel in the ambulance and read Joel his Miranda warnings. Then he started questioning Joel, and Joel indicated that he wanted to “cooperate.”

    He admitted that he was involved in the robbery and described other individuals who were involved, as well as the location of property that was taken from the victim. After receiving two stitches and another Miranda warning, Joel stopped talking.

    Joel was charged with armed robbery with threat of force as a party to a crime. He filed a motion to suppress the statements in the ambulance on the grounds that they were not recorded as required and they weren’t knowingly, intelligently, or voluntarily made.

    The judge denied Joel’s motion to suppress. On appeal, a three-judge panel affirmed that ruling. First, the panel ruled that an exigent public-safety exception applied.

    “We conclude that Officer French’s decision to question Joel in the back of the ambulance was reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety here,” wrote Judge Kitty Brennan. “Officer French testified that he decided to question Joel because he believed that there could be other armed robbers still at large.”

    Judge Brennan’s opinion noted that police believed that other suspects were still in the area and the knife used in the robbery had not been recovered.

    Recording the interrogation was not feasible in the ambulance, the panel explained, and the officer believed the interrogation was immediately necessary to ensure apprehension of other possible suspects, who were still at large in the community.

    The panel rejected Joel’s argument that other suspects were detained, and the arresting officer should have consulted the other units to make that determination.

    “Only upon speaking to Joel and verifying who was involved in the robbery could Officer French know whether all of the robbers had been apprehended,” Brennan wrote.

    The panel also rejected Joel’s assertion that he did not make the incriminating statements knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. Joel argued that his age, his limited intelligence, and other circumstances supported this argument.

    For instance, Joel noted that he primarily spoke Spanish, police did not call his parents, a police dog had just bitten him, and was in handcuffs when the officer interrogated him.

    But the appeals court panel noted findings that Joel’s English was fine, he had prior experience with police, and the facts indicated that he understood his rights. In addition, Joel did not allege that officers used coercive or inappropriate tactics to induce him.

    While Joel is young and has some intellectual struggles, his prior experience with the police and the juvenile justice system for an identical offense, suggest that he was well-aware of his rights when he agreed to speak with Officer French,” Judge Brennan wrote.

    The panel noted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has declined to adopt a per se rule requiring parental consent before questioning a juvenile who has been arrested.

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