NJ Supreme Court Rules Law Enforcement Not Required to Administer Miranda Rights For Witness Statement

State v. Andreas M. Erazo (A-16-22/086991)

In State v. Andreas M. Erazo (A-16-22/086991) (Decided June 21, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that law enforcement was not required to administer Miranda warnings to the defendant when he voluntarily came to the police station to provide a witness statement because he was not yet a suspect. The court further held that the defendant’s waiver of his Miranda rights before his second interview with police was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary and, thus, his confession should not be suppressed.

Facts of State v. Erazo

One night in July 2017, eleven-year-old A.S. disappeared. Responding officers knocked at Defendant Andreas M. Erazo’s (Defendant or Erazo) door, near where A.S.’s brother had seen her earlier. Defendant denied having seen A.S. that evening and allowed the officers to enter his apartment to look for her, but they found nothing suspicious. Police returned early the next morning to conduct a second search but again found nothing. About five and a half hours later, police discovered A.S.’s body on the roof of a shed behind the apartment building, below a window of the Defendant’s apartment.

Police asked the Defendant to ride with them to the Keansburg Police station to provide a witness statement. Two detectives met him in the lobby and explained that they wanted to talk to him but needed to find a place to do so. About twenty minutes later, the detectives escorted the Defendant to the only available interview room, which was located on the second floor and was not equipped with audio or video recording equipment. The Defendant stated that he knew there was a missing persons investigation and agreed to provide any information he had that could help. The detectives testified that they believed they were taking a witness statement and thus did not administer Miranda warnings or record the interview.

After a 90-minute interview, the detectives asked if the Defendant needed food, water, or a bathroom break. He asked only to smoke a cigarette. The detectives left defendant alone, unrestrained, in the interview room without locking the door. They were then told that a neighbor saw someone matching A.S.’s description enter apartment 16A with someone matching the Defendant’s description on the day A.S. disappeared.

The detectives now considered the Defendant to be a suspect and sought to move him to the first-floor interview room, which had audio and video recording capabilities, to question him about the neighbor’s statements. At no time between the interview on the second floor and the recorded interview on the first floor did officers restrain the Defendant or discuss the investigation. About five hours after the Defendant’s interview on the second floor ended, the detectives started to interrogate the Defendant about the investigation.

Detective Wayne Raynor stated that they would continue on with their conversation “[b]ut before we do that, because we’re in the police department, okay, you’re not under arrest, but because we’re in a police department . . . . Because we want to talk to you about this[,] I’m going to advise you of your Miranda rights.” Raynor then read the Miranda warnings, after which the Defendant verbally acknowledged his understanding. Defendant reviewed his answers to the Miranda warnings and initialed next to each statement on the Miranda form. Raynor read the waiver clause: “‘Having these rights in mind I wish to waive or give up these rights and make a knowing and voluntary statement and answer questions.’ That means you’re okay with talking to us.” Defendant replied, “Yes.” The Defendant and the detectives then signed and dated the form.

After some questioning and a cigarette break in the interview room, the Defendant stated that he would rather talk to the detectives off-camera, explaining that he would prefer that his mother and girlfriend not see or hear the interview. Defendant then confessed. When the detectives asked the Defendant for a DNA sample, he responded that he would like to talk to his lawyer. The detectives stopped all questioning at that point and arrested the Defendant, who was later indicted on seven counts.

Defendant moved to suppress the statements he made to the detectives in the first and second interviews. The trial court found that the Defendant was not in custody at the time of the first interview and that Miranda warnings were therefore not required. The trial court also found, based on Raynor’s credible testimony and the video of the second interview, that the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant’s Miranda waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary, and that his confession should be admitted at trial.

Defendant pled guilty to murder and aggravated sexual assault of a victim under the age of thirteen. He then appealed, arguing that his motion to suppress should have been granted. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the Defendant’s statements from both interviews should have been suppressed.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Erazo

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed. It held that the Defendant was not in custody during his first interview, and thus not yet owed Miranda warnings. It further held that the Defendant’s subsequent Miranda waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Thus, his confession need not be suppressed.

“Defendant was not in custody at the time of the pre-confession interview, and thus Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), is not implicated, nor must we consider the factors set forth by this Court in State v. O’Neill, 193 N.J. 148 (2007), to assess the admissibility of defendant’s subsequent, Mirandized confession,” the court held. “We also find that the detectives’ tactics during the Mirandized interrogation were not coercive, did not minimize the Miranda warnings, and were consistent with our holding in State v. Sims, 250 N.J. 189 (2022). Thus, under the totality of the circumstances, defendant’s Miranda waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary, and the trial court properly denied his motion to suppress.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the Defendant was not in custody when he was first interviewed by the detectives. As the court explained:

There is no evidence that defendant was forced to go to the police station or that he was handcuffed during the drive. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that the short trip was anything but voluntary. Moreover, when defendant arrived at the station, he sat on a bench — unsupervised and unrestrained — among other members of the public, including his neighbors from the apartment complex and members of A.S.’s family. In no way was defendant’s freedom of action restrained to a “degree associated with” formal arrest.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also noted that nothing about the interview suggested that it was custodial. Moreover, it was only after the interview that the detectives considered the Defendant a suspect.

The New Jersey Supreme Court next turned to whether the Defendant’s Miranda waiver at the beginning of his second interview was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary under the totality of the circumstances. It concluded the waiver was valid, explaining:

Although defendant had minimal experience with the criminal justice system, the inquiry is the totality of the circumstances. Here, the trial court found that the detectives were accommodating, even “paternalistic” toward defendant, a literate adult whom they allowed to take breaks, smoke, eat, and drink. Furthermore, police fully apprised defendant of his rights, and he asserted his right to counsel when detectives asked for a DNA sample; the detectives stopped all questioning at that point. On those facts — all adequately supported by the record — we agree with the trial court: defendant received and understood his Miranda rights.

Based on the foregoing, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that neither the Fifth Amendment nor New Jersey’s common law called for suppression of the Defendant’s statements.

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