As stated in previous blog posts, our firm tracks new court decisions regarding statements to law enforcement and Miranda warnings. Generally speaking, the only response to questioning by law enforcement officers during an interrogation should be “I want a lawyer”, which should bring all questioning to an immediate end. Experience shows, however, that many people think they can simply talk their way out of a difficult situation during an interview, regardless of the fact that they are confronted with officers who are trained to elicit damaging admissions from the person being questioned.
Andreas Erazo, who is currently serving a life sentence following a guilty plea to the rape and murder of a 13-year-old victim, moved in the trial court to suppress his two statements to law enforcement. These statements consisted of: (a) a non-custodial interview which lasted for about 90 minutes prior to which he did not receive Miranda warnings, followed by (b) a custodial interrogation that followed five hours later where he was Mirandized. The trial court admitted the statements but the Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court, in turn, reversed the Appellate Division, agreeing with the trial court that the statements were admissible since proper procedures had been followed.
The victim disappeared one night in July, 2017, and was reported missing by her mother. The victim’s brother had previously seen her near Erazo’s apartment. Officers spoke with Erazo and looked around his apartment twice, but found nothing suspicious. The victim’s body was later found on the roof of a shed behind the building under a window of Erazo’s apartment. The police asked Erazo to come to the station to provide a statement. The statement was then set up in makeshift quarters because of Hurricane Sandy. Initially, Erazo sat unrestrained in the lobby, but was eventually escorted to an interview room that lacked recording equipment for his first interview. The officers did not Mirandize Erazo since they believed they were taking a witness statement. Over the next 90 minutes, Erazo told the officers when he had last seen the victim, and also described his activities during the course of the day. The officers offered him food, water and a bathroom break. He was also left unrestrained in the unlocked interview room. His only request was to smoke a cigarette. After leaving the interview room, the officers learned that a witness saw someone matching the victim’s description enter an apartment with someone matching Erazo’s description on the day the victim disappeared. Erazo was now viewed as a suspect, and the officers moved him to another interview room that had recording equipment for further questioning. He was given food, water and additional cigarette breaks, and the officers did not restrain or discuss the investigation with him.
While Erazo waited unrestrained in the second interview room, which was not locked, the officers gathered information from other detectives. As noted, the officers did not begin to interrogate Erazo until approximately five hours after the end of the first interview. This time, however, the officers administered Miranda warnings and reviewed the Miranda form with Erazo, who initialed and signed the form. The officers noted several inconsistencies between the first unrecorded statement and the subsequent recorded interrogation. Erazo, who was again offered amenities such as a cigarette break, ultimately confessed and did not request a lawyer until after the officers asked for a DNA sample. All questioning then stopped, and Erazo was arrested and later indicted on seven counts.
As noted above, Erazo moved to suppress both statements and the trial court denied the motion. The court found that he was not in custody at the time of the first interview, and Miranda warnings were therefore not required. As to the second interview, the court found that the State met its burden of proving that Erazo’s Miranda waiver was knowing, intelligent and voluntary, and the confession was therefore admissible. The Appellate Division reversed, find that both statements should have been suppressed. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the case, finding that Miranda warnings were not required for the first interview since Erazo was not in custody at that time, and that the waiver given before the second interview was knowing, intelligent and voluntary. Further, between the two interviews, he was given cigarette breaks and allowed to use the restroom. Because there was no Miranda violation, the second custodial interrogation was not tainted by the first interview.
The case is interesting because of the manner in which the first (noncustodial) interview impacted upon the second (custodial) interrogation. Specifically, the investigation that occurred during the five-hour interlude, as well as the inconsistencies between the two interviews, ultimately played a significant role in securing a confession. As is generally true, the better course of action would have been to refuse to participate in the second interview, and to stop all questioning by simply demanding a lawyer.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents individuals charged with crimes in the Superior Court of New Jersey in all counties, the United States District Court in New Jersey and New York City, and all New Jersey municipal courts. If you have charges in any of these courts, contact Mr. Friedman to discuss your case and learn about your options.