On June 6, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion that deals with situations where police officers intimidate a suspect into waiving his Miranda rights. The decision in United States v. Giddins, No. 15-4039, applies to all federal courts of the five states comprising the Fourth Circuit: NC, SC, VA, MD, and WV.
The Giddins case involved police interrogation of Mr. Giddins, the owner of a car that had been seized. The police had contacted him and informed him that they had his car and that the car had been used in a bank robbery. Giddins went to the police station to retrieve his car.
Once at the police station, the police took him into an interrogation room. The door nearest to Giddins was locked by one of the detectives. Giddins asked a detective if he was in trouble and the detective told him no, even though they had already obtained a warrant for his arrest for the armed robbery. The detective made Giddins place his cell phone on the table and turn it off.
The detectives read Giddins his Miranda rights, but he asked if this procedure was required just to get his car back. The detectives replied that it was, which was not true. Giddins was a working man and needed his car back to get to work.
The Court found although he had not yet been arrested, Giddins was in the functional equivalent of custody, meaning that Miranda warnings and a voluntary waiver were necessary before questioning could proceed. The Court reiterated existing law that the determination of whether a person is in custody for Miranda purposes is an objective inquiry focusing on “whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave”.
Mr. Giddins was in a room with one locked door and a detective between him and the other door and he was told he had to consent to the interview to retrieve his car. The Court held that a reasonable person would have felt unable to cease the interview without forfeiting the return of his car. Thus, the Court determined that Giddins was then in custody, requiring Miranda warnings and a voluntary wavier.
Next, the Court found Giddins’ Miranda waiver to be involuntary as it was the product of unduly coercive police behavior which overbore the will of Giddins. This was based on a determination that the detectives affirmatively misled Giddins as to the true nature of the investigation by failing to inform him, in response to his query, that he was the subject of the investigation, thereby constituting deceit and coercion. The Court found that this coercion rose to the level that Giddins’ will was overborne. Consequently, the Court found that Giddins’ waiver and statements were involuntary, the result of coercion, and were erroneously admitted against him at trial. The Court reversed his conviction.
Under existing U.S. Supreme Court case law, law enforcement officers can lie to suspects during interrogations to attempt to obtain confessions. For instance, officers can falsely tell a suspect that his DNA has been found on the murder weapon. However, such conduct, in conjunction with lengthy in-custody interrogation, can lead to coerced confessions and even false confessions.
Giddins deals with the different situation of police deceit regarding the nature of the investigation and the suspect’s status in it. It is common for police to bring a suspect to the police station for a “voluntary” interview but to do and say things that make the suspect believe that they are not free to go until they waive their rights and tell the police their side of the story. Giddins will hopefully aid federal criminal defense attorneys in the enforcement of suspects’ Constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment.