July 11, 2016 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that physical evidence obtained after the illegal interrogation of a murder suspect was not “fruit of the poisonous tree” because police would have inevitably discovered the evidence.
Mastella Jackson was a suspect in the stabbing death of her husband. The murder happened in 2012, in the Town of Grand Chute. During a six-hour period, police extracted incriminating statements from her without providing a Miranda warning.
The state ultimately conceded that police intentionally violated Jackson’s constitutional rights during interrogation, and incriminating statements should be barred at trial. But the state argued that other evidence, including the murder weapon, is still admissible.
In State v. Jackson, 2016 WI 56 (July 1, 2016), a supreme court majority (5-2) ruled that the unconstitutional police interrogation did not extend to bar physical evidence as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” because the “inevitable discovery doctrine” applied.
That is, “the State established by a preponderance of the evidence that Jackson’s knife and her bloody clothing would inevitably been discovered by lawful means but for the police misconduct,” Justice Prosser wrote for the majority.
Bad Scene, Illegal Interrogation
When police arrived on scene, Derrick Whitlow was dead in a hotel room with 25 stab wounds. One witness, a hotel patron, said he heard a woman’s voice yelling in the room where the murder occurred, followed by a man’s voice yelling for help.
Police began searching for Whitlow’s wife, Jackson. Ultimately, police found her at her residence and requested that she and Whitlow’s 11-year-old son come to the police station. Police interviewed both of them separately, the son first. Detectives began asking about his mother’s whereabouts that day, and the son eventually started talking.
Jackson left the house for 10 to 20 minutes that afternoon, the son said, and she was angry with Whitlow. When she returned, Jackson immediately took a shower, changed her clothes, and told her son not to tell anyone that she had left, the son told police.
Jackson waited for two hours in a separate room before detectives began to interview her around 6:30 p.m. A detective told her she was not under arrest and that she was free to leave, but he wanted some information. He gave no Miranda warning.
By that point an officer had started the process of obtaining a search warrant for Jackson’s home, based on statements from witnesses and Jackson’s son. It would ultimately include information derived from police’s illegal interrogation of Jackson.
The detective starting pressing Jackson for a timeline of her whereabouts. At various points, Jackson asked whether she could leave and do the interview later. Police kept asking questions. At one point, she said she didn’t want to talk and wanted to go home.
Jackson indicated that she was having stomach pains. The detectives offered to bring her back to her residence so she could take prescription medication for her pain. After that, they stopped to get her food and brought her back to the police station.
Questioning resumed around 8:30 p.m. She still had not received any Miranda warning. At about 9:20 p.m., three hours after police first started asking questions, she admitted that she was at the hotel the afternoon of the murder. She said Whitlow “came at her.”
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
She also admitted that she “may have had” a knife. Police kept questioning her and she continued to make incriminating statements. A judge ultimately signed the warrant to search Jackson’s home around 11:30 p.m.
After midnight, detectives told Jackson that she would be charged with murder. Around 12:30 a.m., a detective read her a Miranda warning. He said he “technically” could not talk to her until reading her rights. When Jackson mentioned that detectives previously would not let her leave when she requested to go, the detective cut her off.
Close to 1 a.m., officers began to search Jackson’s home. One officer later testified that they were searching in a systematic and extremely thorough manner when they received word that the knife could be in the garage, based on Jackson’s statements.
An officer searched two garbage cans around the garage, but went back to the basement to resume the systematic search that was being conducted in each section of house, intending to return to the garage to thoroughly search there with other officers.
Detectives brought Jackson to the residence around 2:15 a.m., before officers started searching the garage. She directed them to the bloody knife and clothing in the garage.
Inevitable Discovery Doctrine
After being charged with first-degree intentional homicide, Jackson filed a motion to suppress evidence. The circuit court excluded Jackson’s statements and physical evidence, including the bloody knife, as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The circuit court admonished detectives, calling it a “textbook interrogation of what not to do,” and said detectives “intentionally” deprived Jackson of her rights.
Without Jackson’s incriminating statements, the circuit court ruled that police did not have probable cause for a warrant to search Jackson’s home. Thus, the circuit court suppressed the evidence that police uncovered there, the bloody clothes and knife.
But an appeals court reversed, with regard to physical evidence, concluding that police did have probable cause, even without Jackson’s statements, and police officers would have found the physical evidence in the garage even if she did not direct them to it.
That is, the inevitable discovery doctrine was an antidote for unconstitutional police questioning that would normally require the evidence to be suppressed.
The majority noted that the U.S. Supreme Court approved the inevitable discovery doctrine in 1984, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court first applied it in 1991, but said the state supreme court has never conducted an extensive evaluation of the doctrine.
Thus, the majority clarified the proper question when examining the inevitable discovery doctrine: did the prosecution meet its burden to prove that police would have inevitably discovered the evidence sought to be suppressed by lawful means?
Jackson argued that the doctrine doesn’t apply unless the state shows police did not engage in bad faith, and the detectives clearly engaged in bad faith in this case.
“Like the Supreme Court of the United States, we conclude that the exception does not include such a requirement,” Justice Prosser wrote.
“We are not persuaded that allowing the State to prove inevitable discovery without proving the absence of bad faith will encourage officers to take unconstitutional shortcuts to accelerate the acquisition of information.”
The majority also rejected Jackson’s claim that the doctrine does not apply unless the state shows police were actively engaged in alternative lines of investigation.
“Demonstrated historical facts proving active pursuit of an alternative line of investigation at the time of the constitutional violation certainly help the State to substantiate its claim that discovery of otherwise excludable evidence was inevitable.
“However, requiring proof in all cases of active pursuit at the time of the constitutional violation risks exclusion of evidence that the State might demonstrate that it inevitably would have discovered,” Justice Prosser wrote.
Doctrine Applies Here
The majority noted all the other evidence that police obtained in establishing probable cause for a warrant to search Jackson’s home, even without the incriminating statement that she traveled to the hotel and confronted Whitlow with a knife.
That included information from a witness that Whitlow was having problems with his wife, another witness who said he heard a woman’s voice in the hotel room around the time of the murder, and the son’s testimony about Jackson’s whereabouts and behavior.
“Based on the untainted portions of the affidavit, we conclude that the search warrant application provided probable cause to conduct a search of Jackson’s residence,” Justice Prosser wrote. “Jackson was an obvious suspect in Whitlow’s murder.”
And since police were in the middle of conducting a systematic and methodical search of Jackson’s home, they would have inevitably found the bloody knife and clothing.
“By searching every bag and container in the garage, the officers eventually would have searched the garbage can containing the knife and clothing,” Justice Prosser wrote.
The majority noted that there is still a remedy for a violation of Jackson’s constitutional rights. The state cannot use her incriminating statements at trial.
“Although proof of inevitable discovery saves the knife and clothing from exclusion in this case, suppression of Jackson’s incriminating statements provides an entirely appropriate remedy for the Miranda violations,” Prosser wrote.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, wrote a dissenting opinion, concluding that the physical evidence should be suppressed.
“True, Jackson’s incriminating statements remain suppressed, but the majority does not offer either Jackson or the people of the State a remedy for the intentional, unwarranted, and unconstitutional shortcut police took to in discovering the incriminating physical evidence,” Justice Abrahamson wrote.
Abrahamson said suppressing the physical evidence in this case “has shortcomings” but would help deter intentional Miranda violations in the future.
And she disagreed that the inevitable discovery doctrine applied, citing a 2005 case “which held that physical evidence obtained as a direct result of an intentional violation of Miranda is inadmissible under Article I, Section 8 of the Wisconsin Constitution.”