NJ Supreme Court Rules Detectives’ Contradicting Miranda Warnings Invalidated Waiver

In State v. O.D.A.-C. (A-78-20/085608) (Decided May 2, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that because a detective repeatedly contradicted and minimized the significance of the Miranda warnings, the State could not shoulder its heavy burden of proving the defendant’s waiver was voluntary.

Facts of State v. O.D.A.-C.

Beginning in late September 2013, a detective from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (BCPO) and a detective from the Hackensack Police Department investigated an allegation that the defendant had inappropriately touched H.B., then fourteen years old, on ten to fifteen occasions over a two-year period.

At the outset of the detectives interview with the defendant, the Hackensack detective said, “Just a formality. . . . I just have to read you your rights, okay?” (emphasis added). After that comment, the Hackensack detective read the Miranda warnings aloud from a form; defendant initialed each right; both the detective and defendant read aloud a paragraph titled “waiver of rights”; and defendant signed under the waiver paragraph.

After informing the defendant about H.B.’s allegations, the defendants attempted to get defendant to confirm the allegations and asked, among other things, how many times he had touched H.B. Defendant was hesitant to respond. Hackensack detective then encouraged defendant to respond more fully, telling him things like “you’re gonna feel so much better about yourself once you do get it out,” and “[w]hat we talk about in here is between us.” “[I]t’s confidential between us, it’s staying between us, okay.”

As the detectives continued to ask the defendant how many times he had touched H.B., the defendant eventually said, “Well, first of all, when you make me write that, it say that anything that I say, it goes against my, you know.” The Hackensack defendant then repeated, “That’s a formality, that’s what it is.” Defendant stated, “[I]t’s gonna work against me,” but the Hackensack detective advised, “[W]hatever you’re saying here, it may be hard to believe that it’s not going to work against you, your cooperation is paramount.”

After the defendant again voiced his concerns, the Hackensack detective added, “Anything you say, like I said, is only going to help you, it’s not going to hurt you.” Shortly thereafter, defendant said, “If I could have had a lawyer here present then it would be a different story,” and the detectives ended the interview.

Defendant was indicted and moved to suppress his statement pretrial. After a hearing, the court found that the defendant’s rights were not violated because he had knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights. A divided Appellate Division panel suppressed the statement, with the majority finding that the Hackensack detective’s comments amounted to a “blatant end-run around measures designed to protect bedrock constitutional guarantees.” The dissent agreed the Hackensack detective’s comments were improper but found they did not undermine the clear Miranda warnings defendant had been given or his knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those rights.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. O.D.A.-C.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, agreeing with the Appellate Division that the defendant’s statement had to be suppressed. “Because a detective here repeatedly contradicted and minimized the significance of the Miranda warnings — starting at the outset of the interrogation and continuing throughout — the State cannot shoulder its heavy burden,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote. “We therefore affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division majority, which concluded defendant’s statement had to be suppressed.”

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that before the police can interrogate a suspect in custody, they must inform the person of his constitutional rights in accordance with Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).The State must also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived those rights “in light of all the circumstances.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that the detective undermined their Miranda warnings in several ways in trying to elicit a confession. As Chief Justice Rabner wrote:

He twice told defendant the warnings were a “formality.” He promised the defendant’s words were “confidential between us” and would “stay[] between us.” He assured defendant his words were “not going to work against you.” And he told defendant “[a]nything you say . . . is only going to help you; it’s not going to hurt you.” Those comments countered and diminished the significance of the Miranda warnings, and we disapprove of each of them.

The New Jersey Supreme next considered the totality of the circumstances to decide whether the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights. “We decline to adopt a bright-line rule that would require suppression any time an officer makes an improper comment during an interrogation. Such an approach would lead to the suppression of voluntary statements in a number of instances,” Chief Justice Rabner explained. “In contrast, the totality-of-the-circumstances test can both root out improper police statements that result in an invalid waiver and recognize knowing and voluntary waivers.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately concluded that the defendant’s statement must be suppressed in full. In support, the court cited that the defendant’s interrogation began with a misleading remark that was reinforced by yet more misrepresentations throughout the questioning. “We recognize as part of the totality of the circumstances that he waived his rights at first, demonstrated some familiarity with them during the interrogation, knew he was being recorded, and ultimately invoked his right to counsel. We also note that defendant was forty-three years old, owned a trucking company, and was not subjected to prolonged questioning,” the Chief Justice wrote. “But we cannot isolate and minimize the string of misrepresentations in this case. Cumulatively, the number and significance of the detective’s misleading statements undermined the Miranda warnings and, by extension, the voluntariness of defendant’s waiver.”

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