“Talk Nice, Think Mean” Leads to Voluntary Conversation and No Suppression

by | June 17, 2021

United States v. Leal, 2021 WL 2521595 (7th Cir. 2021)

Jorge Leal, on the Grindr dating application, unknowingly came into contact with an FBI agent looking to identify and locate persons with sexual attraction to children. Leal connected with a Grindr user who presented as a 15-year-old boy, but who was actually an undercover agent. Leal asked the boy to engage in oral sex with him and asked for the boy’s location. The undercover agent supplied the address of a house hosting the undercover operation.

Leal drove to the alley behind the house. A deputy marshal drove an unmarked car into the alley and Leal sped off. The marshal, another federal agent and a local officer pulled Leal over two blocks away. The agent asked, and Leal consented, to a pat down search. When the agent asked Leal whether he had a cell phone, he handed it over to the agent.

The agent told Leal he was not under arrest and asked Leal whether he would voluntarily speak with other agents in a nearby house. Leal said, “Yes.” The agent asked Leal for his car keys so an officer could move his car off the road to a nearby parking lot. Leal consented and handed over his keys.

The agent then took Leal, who was not handcuffed or restrained in any way, back to the house used for the undercover operation. The agent escorted Leal past two other agents and into a room with a table, chairs and a computer. Leal agreed to an interview, which was recorded. The agents placed Leal’s wallet and cell phone on the table, but his keys were with the officer who had moved his car.

The agents told Leal the interview was informal and “just a conversation.” After the agents asked Leal “What brings you out this way?” Leal quickly acknowledged he was there to receive oral sex from a teenage boy. The agents read the Grindr chat log to Leal, and he acknowledged sending the messages asking for sex. Just 18 minutes after the interview began, the agents arrested Leal for soliciting a minor to engage in sexual activity.

Finding that Leal was in custody during the interview and no Miranda warning and waiver occurred, the trial court suppressed the statements made by Leal during the brief interview. The appellate court reversed the suppression of Leal’s statements.

The court held the agents did not conduct a custodial interrogation without advising Leal of his Fifth Amendment rights. The core ruling in the Miranda decision states the “prosecution may not use statements stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination” (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). Thus, the Miranda rule applies when there is both custody and interrogation.

Several criminal procedure issues arise from Miranda: Was the statement a product of interrogation? Was the interrogation done by a law enforcement officer? Was the suspect in custody? Were the warnings adequate? Was there an explicit waiver of rights? Was the suspect competent to make a waiver?

The court is obligated to assess whether a subject is “in custody” from an objective viewpoint (J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011)). The question is whether a reasonable person would feel free to get up and leave the questioning. With this in mind, a subject’s subjective beliefs are irrelevant in a Miranda custody determination (Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994)).

The agents followed the maxim, “talk nice, think mean.” By carefully doing so, they obtained a valid voluntary confession.

The mere fact the interrogation takes place at a law enforcement facility does not necessarily create a custodial situation (Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492 (1977)). On the other hand, interrogation at a person’s home or workplace is generally not considered custodial (United States v. Bassignani, 575 F.3d 879 (9th Cir. 2009)). If an officer directly accuses a suspect of a crime or tells the suspect he or she is under investigation, the accusing statement may be a factor in creating custody insofar as the statement would affect a reasonable person’s belief that he or she was not free to leave (Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994)). The application of handcuffs, placing a suspect behind locked doors or displaying drawn guns are indications of arrest but do not necessarily mandate a conclusion of arrest (United States v. Beard, 119 Fed. Appx. 462 (4th Cir. 2005)). Generally, the longer the questioning, the more likely it is that a custodial detention has been created. A detention for questioning as short as 20 minutes has been ruled as custodial (United States v. Mahar, 801 F.2d 1477 (6th Cir. 1986)). “Whether the interview was aggressive or, instead, informal and influenced in its contours by the suspect” helps determine whether an interrogation is custodial (Commonwealth v. Cameron, 689 N.E.2d 1365 (Mass. App. 1998)). Hostile and accusatory questioning suggests custody (United States v. IMM, 747 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2014)).

The trial court focused on Leal’s belief that “he was in a precarious position from the moment he drove up the alley.” The trial court described the location of the interview as a “police-dominated atmosphere of the home,” which it described as “outfitted like a makeshift police station” outside the public view. The appellate court held that the trial court improperly focused on Leal’s subjective “guilty conscience” and his knowledge he was “caught in the act.” The court explained, “A suspect’s guilty conscience does not turn every police encounter into a custodial interrogation.”

The court of appeals noted that Leal voluntarily traveled two blocks from a public street back to the house, he voluntarily consented to the interview and the interview occurred in an unlocked room. Leal “voluntarily consented at every stage.” The agents told Leal he was not under arrest and they just wanted to have a conversation. They did not confront him with his Grindr messages until after Leal told them he’d come there to have oral sex with a teenage boy. “The agents did not use physical restraint, brandish their weapons, or flaunt a threatening presence,” the court noted.

In sum, the agents followed the maxim, “talk nice, think mean.” By carefully doing so, they obtained a valid voluntary confession.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

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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