Question: Does a peace officer violate the Fifth Amendment when he briefly questions a suspect on the scene and later gives Miranda warnings before questioning at the officer’s station?
Quick answer: It depends on the totality of the evidence surrounding the questioning.
Facts: Police had been tracking a gun trafficking scheme from Birmingham, Ala., to New York City for a year and a half by relying on information from a confidential informant. Defendant Robert Williams and two other men had recently arrived in New York from Alabama to sell guns, and the informant tipped off police that Williams was at an apartment with two other men, and they had at least 10 guns in their possession. Officers had the informant purchase a weapon from the men, and then they quickly obtained and executed a search warrant for the apartment that same evening. Police expected to find three gun traffickers and at least 10 guns, but they found only four guns and two gun traffickers, including Williams.
After securing the suspects in handcuffs, one officer asked Williams who the guns belonged to and the location of the other firearms and third gun trafficker. Williams admitted that the guns were his, but he didn’t respond to the other questions. The officer then began helping a woman in the apartment who needed medical attention. Two hours later at the police station, the officers gave Williams a Miranda warning. He waived his rights and gave a detailed confession during questioning. Williams later moved to suppress his confession as a two-step interrogation that violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Why this case is important: The court found that Williams’ statements should not be suppressed because the police officers did not engage in a deliberate two-step interrogation. Under Missouri v. Seibert, the U.S. Supreme Court condemned law enforcement’s use of a two-step interrogation in which officers would purposely refrain from giving suspects their Miranda warnings to first try to get a confession. Once the confession was obtained, the officers would then give Miranda warnings and ask the suspect questions about his pre-Miranda confession. Whether a two-step interrogation has occurred depends on the totality of the evidence surrounding the questioning.
Here, there was no evidence that the police officers’ questions about the ownership of the guns or location of the missing guns or third gun trafficker was deliberately done to produce a confession-first, warn-later situation prohibited in Seibert. Public safety considerations accounted for the officers’ limited questioning at the apartment because they believed they’d find more guns and one more trafficker. Plus, there was no continuity from the questioning at the apartment to the questioning at the police station. In fact, the officer who quickly questioned Williams about the guns just as quickly turned his attention toward a woman who needed medical assistance. Therefore, the officers committed no Fifth Amendment violation because there was no deliberate two-step interrogation.
Keep in mind: If you decide to question a suspect while executing a search warrant, focus your questions on public safety concerns to help secure the scene, and make sure not to get too specific in your questioning before you’ve given the suspect his Miranda warnings. Otherwise, a court might suppress all of the suspect’s incriminating statements.
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