“Please, Sir, I Got a Gun”

United States v. Woolridge, 2023 WL 2806251 (6th Cir. 2023)

Joshua Woolridge stopped at a convenience store just before midnight, then walked through the neighborhood toward his girlfriend’s apartment. Coincidentally, officers were in the area searching for a fugitive. When Woolridge cut across a vacant lot, an officer approached him and asked for his name. Woolridge turned and ran, tossing several items. Within a few hundred yards, two officers caught Woolridge.

Woolridge began talking immediately. As an officer searched him, Woolridge said, “I got a warrant.” Then he added, “I got a parole violation, sir.” The officer moved Woolridge to a detention van and took his identification information. Woolridge kept talking, saying, “Let me tell you something, sir,” and “Can I talk to you, sir?” and “Sir, let me talk to you for one second,” and “Listen, sir, I got to tell you something else.” The officer responded, “Not right now, man…Just hang tight, okay?”

A few minutes later, the officer asked Woolridge about the items he threw during the chase. Woolridge ultimately said, “I had a firearm.” Only when Woolridge told the officers where he tossed it, could they find the gun. The officer began reading the Miranda warnings and Woolridge said, “I know my rights.” Woolridge repeated he had a gun that he carried due to his brother’s murder.

Woolridge was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He asked the court to suppress the statements he made before receiving the Miranda warnings. The district court suppressed the pre-Miranda statements and admitted the post-Miranda statements. Woolridge pleaded guilty, then appealed the partial denial of his suppression motion.

The court of appeals affirmed the denial of the suppression motion and the conviction. Woolridge knew he had a choice and decided to speak anyway. The court held that no coercion or coercive interrogation tactic compromised the voluntary nature of Woolridge’s statements or impaired the effectiveness of the officer’s Miranda warnings. The officers did not compel Woolridge to speak through abuse, threats or incentives. In other words, the officers employed “talk nice, think mean.”

The officer “did not employ systematic, exhaustive, or coordinated questioning. And he never pushed for a confession or exploited Woolridge’s unwarned statements.”

Woolridge asked the court to apply the rule of Missouri v. Seibert (542 U.S. 600 (2004)), which bars the “question first, Miranda second” interrogation technique. Most courts apply the Seibert holding only in cases of an intentional “question first, Miranda second” violation. In several federal circuit appellate courts, judges have already held the “question first, warn later” technique may not be fatal to a case when officers do not intentionally break the rules. Nonetheless, other courts disagree and take a harsh line in any “question first, warn later” case, even one where the officer makes an error and quickly corrects it. It is possible to conduct a second, voluntary interrogation after an interrogation where Miranda rules applied but officers intentionally omitted the proper warnings.

The burden of proving that the interrogation responses and the Miranda waiver in the second interrogation are voluntary is particularly tough. The second interrogation is presumed to produce involuntary statements. Courts examine: (1) the extent of the thoroughness of the first interrogation; (2) the extent to which the first and second interrogations overlap; (3) the timing and setting of both interrogations, including whether the same officers are present; and (4) the extent to which the interrogator’s questions treated the second interrogation as a continuation of the first, such as asking questions or seeking admissions that build on statements from the first interrogation.

The court held the officer’s conversation did not “remotely resemble the police protocol invalidated in Seibert.” The officer “did not employ systematic, exhaustive, or coordinated questioning. And he never pushed for a confession or exploited Woolridge’s unwarned statements.”

Note: Questions prompted by an urgent concern for public safety often constitute interrogation, but may be exempt from the general Miranda warning rule (New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984)). Though the circumstances in Woolridge’s case did not require application of the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, it is possible the court would have upheld the questioning if the prosecution argued the officer’s questions were aimed at finding the gun to prevent an injury.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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