Suspect Ignites Questioning After Invoking the Right to an Attorney

by | January 25, 2019

State v. Medina, 2019 (Utah App. 2019)

Sergio Medina sent a text message to his fiancée telling her he had to “take someone out.” When Medina didn’t return home, his fiancée called a mutual friend, who told her not to worry about Medina, but to “keep an eye on the news.” The next morning, the victim was found dead on the side of a road; she had been stabbed several times. Medina and the victim had partnered in a drug sales enterprise.

Medina fled from Utah to Colorado, where he was arrested and later interviewed by detectives. When a detective gave Medina a Miranda warning, Medina invoked his right to counsel. But then Medina began to converse with the detectives about the murder investigation and circumstances and his pending charges. Detectives told Medina they wanted to ask him about the murder, but Medina told them he was confused about why he was arrested. He told them, “What’s goin on I actually want to know … That’s what … That’s what I’m asking what’s goin on. Why is it me that I’m being targeted for something that I wasn’t even nearby.” Medina explained “take someone out” meant he would beat the person just enough to show illegal drug dealing was a dangerous game and scare the person away from such an activity.

An explicit request for an attorney requires all questioning to cease. If the suspect makes an ambiguous or equivocal statement concerning the right to legal counsel following an unequivocal waiver of the right to counsel, the officer does not need to stop and ask clarifying questions.

Three days later, the detectives interviewed Medina again. A detective began by saying, “… just as we get talkin’ I just want to make sure you still are aware of your rights okay? Do you understand your rights too?” When Medina responded, “Yes,” the detective continued, “You’re still okay to talk to me then?” Medina replied, “Ya.” Medina provided an alibi, but surveillance video refuted it. Subsequent to the interview and gathering of substantial additional evidence implicating Medina, he was charged with murder and obstructing justice.

Medina asked the court to suppress the statements obtained during the two interrogations, claiming detectives continued to question him after he plainly invoked his right to an attorney during the initial questioning. The trial court agreed and granted his request; the state appealed.

An explicit request for an attorney requires all questioning to cease. If the suspect makes an ambiguous or equivocal statement concerning the right to legal counsel following an unequivocal waiver of the right to counsel, the officer does not need to stop and ask clarifying questions.

Though the suspect’s invocation of the right to counsel absolutely cuts off interrogation, the suspect may open the door to additional interrogation by initiating communication with officers (Minnick v. Mississippi, 498 U.S. 146 (1990); Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981)). The court will ask whether the suspect initiated the conversation and indicated a desire to talk about the crime, and whether the suspect, again given a warning, voluntarily waived Miranda rights, including the right to legal counsel. The court also determines whether a preponderance of the evidence shows the subsequent statements were voluntarily made. Since the prosecution bears the burden of showing the suspect wanted to talk about the crime, officers should generally ask clarifying questions when a suspect indicates a desire to speak with them.

Medina argued he merely began a routine conversation about something unrelated to the murder. The court acknowledged truly routine conversation about an unrelated topic would not signal a suspect’s desire to talk about the murder. However, the court disagreed that Medina’s conversation was more than just routine or unrelated to the crimes charged. When Medina invoked his right to an attorney in the first interrogation, he immediately followed with:

Well ya the thing is I don’t know what’s going on. I wanna know what’s going on. … Why is it that my sisters door gets kicked in … I’ve got an officer asking if I got my hands … if I have an injury on my hands and they’re checking my hands and I was like no what’s goin on … Does he have … What injury are you talking about … What’s going on. You know what I mean? I’m only here tryin (inaudible) cause I wanna lay off the meth cause I was consumin (inaudible) all this goin on and I was like what’s goin on. My sister’s mad at me right and doesn’t want to talk to me because the same situation.

The court opined the context of Medina’s questions “makes clear that he was not asking what process he would be subject to but was instead asking about the investigation of the case and his actions as he spontaneously launched into an extensive and elaborate explanation for the circumstances and his whereabouts on the night of the murder.” Thus, Medina substantively initiated further conversation about the crime.

The court held Medina’s initial invocation of his right to an attorney was unambiguous. Therefore, the detectives had no obligation to ask clarifying questions about that invocation. Moreover, there was no evidence that Medina’s statements were not voluntary.

At the beginning of the second interrogation, the detectives reminded Medina of his Miranda rights. Though commendable, the reminder was constitutionally unnecessary. In Maryland v. Shatzer (559 U.S. 98 (2010)), the Supreme Court held officers need not give renewed Miranda warnings during subsequent interrogations unless 14 days had passed since a break in custody and an effective initial Miranda warning.

Remember: The law governing a renewed attempt at interrogation after a suspect invokes the right to an attorney differs from the rules governing a second interrogation after invocation of the right to remain silent. Once the suspect has clearly invoked the right to legal counsel, all interrogation must immediately stop, unless the suspect reinitiates conversation, as the court found Medina to have done. On the other hand, when a suspect invokes the right to remain silent, officers may attempt to interrogate the suspect at a later time. In Michigan v. Mosley (423 U.S. 96 (1975)), the Supreme Court allowed a second interrogation after the suspect had invoked the right to remain silent upon consideration of four factors:

  1. The interrogation immediately ceased when the defendant said he did not want to talk anymore.
  2. There was a significant passage of time between the invocation of the right to remain silent and the second interrogation.
  3. A fresh set of Miranda warnings preceded the resumption.
  4. The renewed interrogation related to a different crime.

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 three 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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