Friday, December 21, 2007

"Custody" Doesn't Turn on Interogator's Assurance That Defendant Is Not In Custody

US v. Colonna: Colonna was convicted by a jury of two counts related to child pornography. The investigation of Colonna began with an FBI agent infiltrating an online file-sharing service dedicated to child porn, which led to the execution of a search warrant at Colonna's home (where he lived with his parents and sister). It took 23 agents to execute the warrant on this vicious criminal. While the search was ongoing, Colonna was interviewed by two of the agents and made inculpatory statements. At no time was he provided Miranda warnings. Colonna moved to suppress his statements, at which time the district court found:
that Colonna was awakened by armed agents and guarded by agents until the search and interview concluded. The home was inundated with approximately 24 officers who gave Colonna and his family members instructions; that is, they told them where to sit and restricted their access to the home. Colonna did not voluntarily request to speak with Agent Kahn. Instead, Agent Kahn requested that Colonna accompany him to a FBI vehicle to answer questions, wherein a full-fledged interrogation took place. Agent Kahn questioned Colonna for almost three hours, albeit with breaks. But, even during these breaks, Colonna was constantly guarded. Although Colonna was not placed under formal arrest, he was told twice that lying to a federal agent was a federal offense. And, at no time was he given Miranda warnings or informed that he was free to leave.
Nonetheless, the district denied the suppression motion, holding that Colonna was not in custody because (1) the agent interviewing him said so and (2) Colonna was not arrested until nearly two months after the search.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. The court held that the district court had put entirely too much weight on the agent's statement to Colonna that he wasn't in custody during the search, noting that such statements are but one part of the totality of the circumstances to be considered in such cases. Due to the lack of Miranda warnings, Colonna's statements should have been suppressed. The failure to do so was not harmless. Therefore, the case was remanded for a new trial.

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