Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Economically Coerced Statement's Use at Trial Requires Reversal

US v. Giddins: Giddins was connected to three bank robberies - he allegedly committed one, then loaned his car to the perpetrators of two others. Police recovered the car, obtained an arrest warrant for Giddins, and lured him to the police station so that he could pick up his car. He was immediately taken into an interview room and informed that his car was used in a crime (the entire interview was videotaped). While going over a Miranda waiver form, Giddins was (essentially) told he wasn't going to be able to take his car until he answered some questions about "these young ladies who decided to use your car in a crime."  An officer told Giddins that he wasn't in trouble ("Not at this point, no") and implied that he didn't have anything to worry about. Giddins eventually signed the form. After about 15 minutes more questioning (during which the officer kept taking control of Giddins's phone), the officer showed Giddins a surveillance photo from the first robbery and told him he was the robber, which Giddins denied. After the officer "laid out the case" against him, Giddins invoked his Fifth Amendment right to counsel. The officer finally seized Giddins's phone, "prying it from Giddins's hands." Giddins was indicted for bank robbery and conspiracy to commit bank robbery. Giddins unsuccessfully moved to suppress the video of the questioning. He was convicted of one count of bank robbery and one count of conspiracy at trial.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed Giddins's conviction, 2-1. Noting that Giddins argued primarily that his statements weren't voluntary, the court held that "it is the Miranda waiver that is decisive in this case." The court rejected the Government's argument that Giddins wasn't in custody while being questioned, which was the conclusion of the district court. While the district court's findings (that Giddins wasn't under arrest, wasn't handcuffed, that no weapons were drawn or visible during questioning, etc.) were not incorrect, they were "not complete . . . and fail to paint the full picture." For instance, while there was an unlocked door, it was behind the questioning officer and, thus, would have required Giddins to make his way past him. Also, the officer "moved Giddins's phone away" from him twice during the session. In addition, "there is the issue of Giddins's car." Specifically, the court concluded that a "reasonable person would have felt unable to cease the interview and thus forfeit the opportunity to obtain the return of his or her property." Considering the totality of the circumstances, therefore, Giddins was in custody. Having concluded that Miranda warnings were needed, the court went on to conclude that "both the questioning and the waiver were involuntary and the result of coercion." Specifically, obtaining the Miranda waiver by making it condition precedent for Giddins getting his car back was economically coercive to an improper degree. The court also found that the officers' repeated statements that Giddins wasn't "in trouble" were unduly coercive - the officers already had an arrest warrant and planned to execute it, thus there was "no doubt that Giddins was 'in trouble.'" Finally, the court found that the admission of Giddins's statement at trial was not harmless error.

Judge Agee dissented, arguing that Giddins was not in custody and his statement was not coerced.

Congrats to the Defender office in Maryland on the win!

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