In State v. Zakariyya Ahmad (A-54-19/083736) (Decided June 15, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that because a reasonable 17-year-old in the defendant’s position would have believed he was in custody and not free to leave Miranda warnings were required. The court further held it was harmful error to admit the defendant’s statement at trial.
Facts of State v. Ahmad
Defendant Zakariyya Ahmad (Defendant) appealed from his conviction of multiple offenses related to the murder of a café owner in Newark. The question before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether defendant’s statement to police — which occurred when defendant was 17 years old — was properly admitted at trial.
At the time defendant gave the statement, he had been shot several times hours earlier, had been heavily medicated, and had undergone surgery to remove a bullet from his leg. As he was released from the hospital, still wearing bandages and a hospital bracelet and walking with the assistance of crutches, law enforcement placed defendant in the back of a patrol car and transported him to the Newark Police Department for questioning. Defendant’s mother testified that officers told her she could not take defendant home or drive him to the police station from the hospital.
Eventually, Detective Rashaan Johnson of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) told defendant and his father to drive to the ECPO for further questioning. Defendant rode with his father to the ECPO, but they were escorted there by Detective Johnson. Earlier in the day, Detective Johnson had been dispatched to investigate a homicide. Joseph Flagg, the owner of Zakkiyah’s Café (the Café), had been shot and killed in an apparent robbery attempt. Detective Johnson learned that a gunshot victim at University Hospital had reported being shot about four blocks away from the Café earlier that morning. Upon leaving the Café, Detective Johnson went to Newark PD, where he met defendant and his father and then escorted them to the ECPO for questioning.
At the ECPO, Detective Johnson placed defendant in an interview room apart from his parents. Defendant was told that the interview was being recorded but was not advised of his Miranda rights. According to Detective Johnson, he did not suspect defendant of killing Flagg or robbing the Café at that time. Defendant narrated his version of the events of the day, stating that he was shot while walking on the street and that he flagged down Steffon Byrd, who drove defendant to the hospital along with two other men. Defendant stated that he recognized the two other passengers but did not know their names.
Detective Johnson later matched the bullet removed from defendant’s ankle and blood swabbed from defendant’s pants to physical evidence found at the Café. According to Detective Johnson, it was at that point that defendant became a suspect in Flagg’s murder.
Detective Johnson also reviewed surveillance footage from the morning of the murder; it captured defendant, Ja-Ki Crawford, and Daryl Cline exiting the Café. Crawford gave a statement to the ECPO incriminating defendant and Cline, stating Cline had shot and killed Flagg and inadvertently shot defendant in the course of an attempted robbery of the Café. Crawford reached an agreement with the ECPO pursuant to which he would cooperate and plead guilty in exchange for being sentenced as a juvenile.
Defendant was indicted, and a pretrial evidentiary hearing was held to address the State’s motion to admit defendant’s videotaped statement at trial. The court granted the motion, finding that defendant was interrogated as a shooting victim, not a suspect. He was later tried and convicted.
The Appellate Division affirmed, agreeing that defendant was questioned as “part of an investigatory procedure rather than a custodial interrogation” and that Miranda was therefore not implicated. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification, “limited to the issue of whether defendant’s statement was obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).”
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Ahmad
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “We find that, pursuant to the facts of this case, a reasonable 17-year-old in defendant’s position would have believed he was in custody and not free to leave, so Miranda warnings were required,” the court wrote. “We hold that it was harmful error to admit his statement at trial and reverse.”
The court first addressed whether defendant gave his unwarned statement while in police custody and whether the statement should therefore have been suppressed. It focused its objective analysis on what transpired at the hospital, particularly the moment defendant was advised that he would be transported to Newark PD for questioning. “The trial court made no factual findings regarding what occurred at the hospital and focused its analysis almost exclusively on what occurred during the interview, defendant’s demeanor while answering questions, and the detectives’ perspective that defendant was a victim at the time,” the court wrote. “Our analysis, however, ends at the moment defendant was placed in the back of a patrol car and transported to the Newark PD, having been told that he could not leave the hospital with his parents, because that is the moment at which we find that a reasonable 17-year-old would no longer have felt free to leave.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to conclude that a reasonable 17-year-old in defendant’s position would have understood that he was in custody. As a result, the detectives should have given defendant Miranda warnings prior to taking his statement. As the court explained:
Defendant was a minor, still in high school. He suffered the significant trauma of being shot multiple times. Immediately upon release from the hospital, he was placed in the back of a patrol car — where arrestees are normally held — and taken to the police station. We doubt there are many, if any, reasonable 17-year-olds who would think they were free to leave after
such events. Accordingly, our decision today simply honors the long-held standard of whether a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have believed they were free to leave.
The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the argument that because the defendant was treated as a victim, he was therefore not in custody. “[W]hether defendant was viewed as a victim by law enforcement at the time of questioning is not, and has never been, the relevant inquiry under Miranda for determining whether someone is in custody,” the court wrote. “That detectives believed defendant was a victim is of no moment because the inquiry is not based ‘on the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned.’”
The New Jersey Supreme Court next considered whether that error was harmful; it concluded that it was. “The State used defendant’s recorded statement to demonstrate that defendant told untruths to detectives when he was questioned. In summation, the prosecutor argued that the statement was unbelievable, not supported by the evidence, and comprised of inconsistencies and falsities,” the court wrote. “The State unquestionably relied on defendant’s recorded statement in attempting to convince the jury that defendant was guilty of the offenses charged, so its admission cannot possibly be viewed as harmless.”
Based on the foregoing, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the case for a new trial on the counts of conviction.