State v. A.M. – Statements to Law Enforcement by Defendants With Limited English Language Skills

Generally speaking, it is a mistake for individuals who are or may be charged with crimes to give statements to law enforcement officers.  Many people believe they can talk their way out of being charged, but this is simply not true.  Our courts have long acknowledged that the atmosphere in which a statement is given is highly coercive.  Further, officers and investigators are trained to take statements, and the person giving the statement simply lacks the same level of training and experience.  The only thing a person brought in for a statement should say is “I want a lawyer.”  At that point, the interrogation is supposed to stop.

The Miranda warnings exist, and are required, because of the coercive atmosphere of a statement.  In New Jersey, these rights are typically explained orally and in writing, and the subject is supposed to initial and sign a form indicating that they understand and waive their rights.  Further, statements are supposed to be video taped so that a reviewing body (such as a trial court hearing a suppression motion) can both see and hear everything that happened during the statement.  When the subject has limited English language skills, the process, which includes the explanation and acknowledgement of Miranda warnings, should be bilingual.

In State v. A.M., decided in April of this year, our Supreme Court discussed whether a Spanish-speaking defendant who spoke limited English, properly waived his right against self-incrimination.  Defendant was charged with sexually assaulting his granddaughter.  After learning of the incident, officers transported him to the local police department for a statement.  He indicated that he was more comfortable with Spanish.  A Spanish speaking officer translated the interview, which was video-recorded, from English to Spanish.

Prior to the statement, the Spanish-speaking officer reviewed a Spanish language Miranda form with the defendant.  The form listed each of the Miranda rights, and contained a waiver paragraph.  The officer read each right to the defendant, and then paused to ask the defendant in Spanish if he understood it.  The defendant replied “yes/si” each time, and initialed the line following each right.  The officer then gave the form to the defendant so that he could review the waiver paragraph.  He then asked the defendant if he understood that paragraph, and the defendant replied “yes/si”.  The defendant was then asked to sign the form, and did so.

The defendant subsequently moved to suppress his statement.  At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that the defendant took his time reading the form, and appeared to have actually read it.  The officer admitted that he did not ask the defendant about his educational background or literacy level, and that he had paraphrased certain of the defendants responses to questions.  After reviewing the DVD recording, the trial court denied the motion.  The court found that the defendant appeared calm during the interview, seemed to understand the questions, and responded forthrightly.  Further, he seemed alert and cognizant when the form was explained to him, and was clearly given the chance to read and sign the waiver paragraph, and did in fact do so.  Additionally, given the defendant’s expressed preference to conduct the interview in Spanish, he would have voiced any difficulty in reading or understanding the waiver paragraph had such difficulty existed.  Given the totality of the circumstances, the Court found that defendant knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights.

The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the State failed to prove that the defendant made a voluntary decision to waive his Miranda rights.  According to that Court, the trial court’s analysis improperly shifted the burden of proof to the defendant to alert the officers about any difficulties he may have had with the waiver.

The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division.  In doing so, the Court noted that the better practice would have been for the officer to have read the waiver paragraph aloud to the defendant.  However, the Court also found that a trial court’s findings in connection with a suppression motion must be upheld when there is sufficient credible evidence in the record, and the record did contain such evidence supporting the trial court’s findings.  The officer’s failure to read the entire Miranda form did not improperly shift the burden to the defendant to alert the officer to any difficulties he may have had concerning his understanding of the waiver.  The Court also observed that the entire Miranda form should be read out loud to the suspect, or the suspect should be asked to read the entire form out loud.  If this is not done, the suspect should be asked about his educational background and literacy skills.  Finally, the case illustrated the importance of video recording a statement.

Getting a statement to law enforcement suppressed is very difficulty.  Once it is in the case, a statement can make the going very tough for a defendant.  This entire problem can be avoided by simply refusing to give a statement and immediately demanding a lawyer.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Mr. Friedman defends individuals charged with crimes in the Superior Court of New Jersey, the New York State criminal courts located in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the United States district courts located throughout New Jersey and New York City, and all New Jersey municipal courts.  Your first discussion about a criminal case should not be with law enforcement; instead, it should be with Mr. Friedman.

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