Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Supreme Court Rules In-Custody Parolee not Protected by Miranda

Not to be overshadowed today by the flood of opinions emanating from the United States Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court rendered its opinion in the case of People v Elliot, Docket No. 144983, a post-arrest confession case.  A gas station in Jackson County was robbed at gun point.  Samuel Elliot was on parole after being released from prison on another charge and the day following the robbery, he was arrested for a an unrelated parole violation warrant.  The police agency investigating the robbery attempted to interrogate Elliot after he was arrested on the warrant, but he invoked his right to remain silent after the officers advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda v Arizona.

Three days later, a parole agent from the Michigan Department of Corrections conducted an interview of Elliot while he was housed at the county jail.  The agent served Elliot with his parole violation allegations and explained to him that he had violated his parole in a number of ways, including robbing the gas station.  She then asked Elliot to make a statement.  He admitted to robbing the gas station.  The agent did not advise Elliot of his Miranda rights.

The trial court held a Walker hearing and denied Elliot's motion to suppress his confession.  He was convicted and the Court of Appeals reversed (Docket Number 301645), finding that a parole officer is a law enforcement officer and that Elliot was in custody at the time of the interrogation.  Therefore, because he had earlier invoked his right to remain silent, the statement he made to the parole agent was inadmissible and its admission was not harmless error.  The MSC reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated Elliot's conviction and sentence of 15 to 30 years in the Department of Corrections.

Justice Markman wrote the opinion that was joined by Justices Kelly, Zahra and Viviano.  The Court concluded first that no blanket rule existed to hold that every parole officer was a law enforcement officer for the purposes of Miranda analysis.  The Court felt that the inherently coercive situation that exists in a station house custodial interrogation does not equate to the less coercive nature of the interaction between a parolee and a parole agent.  The Court focused on the fact that, here, Elliot was interviewed in the jail library, and that the interview lasted only 15 to 25 minutes.  The Court felt that a parolee under these circumstances would feel that he had the right to get up and walk out of the interview, and somehow go back to his cell.  Therefore, Elliot was not "in custody" as the Supreme Court meant that term in Miranda.  No custody means that any statements made were free and voluntary and properly used by the prosecution in the defendant's trial.

Justice Young concurred in the result, but would have further stated that even if Elliot was in custody at the time of his interrogation, he had initiated the further questioning by sending a letter to the police requesting the opportunity to speak with them again.  It is not clear whether the letter was ever made part of the lower record, so Justice Young's reliance on the letter is questionable, at least to the dissenters.

Justice McCormack, joined by Justice Cavanagh, dissented, concluding the others were wrong in concluding that Elliot was not in custody at the time of his interrogation.  Estelle v Smith, a United States Supreme Court case, held that a defendant who was interviewed by a jail or prison psychiatrist for the purpose of determining his competency to stand trial could not have those statements used as evidence in his trial because the defendant was in custody for the purposes of Miranda analysis.  Justice McCormack would have upheld the the Court of Appeals decision.

Elliot was represented by Patrick Ehlmann who received the Barbara R. Levine Award for Excellence in Appellate Advocacy posthumously for his long career and for his work on this case.  Mr. Ehlmann passed away June 9, 2012, three weeks after filing his brief in opposition to the prosecution's application for leave to appeal according to LegalNews.com.

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