Tuesday, May 26, 2009

State v. Gaw

Opinion handed down May 26, 2009[1]
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that a criminal suspect's waiver of Miranda rights is valid even if he was previously questioned on the same subject while in custody and prior to receiving a Miranda warning. The court held that statements made both before and after a Miranda warning were admissible if the questioning officer did not intentionally undermine Miranda by withholding the warning.

I. Facts and Holding

Missouri Highway Patrol Sergeant Michael Frazier responded to a one-vehicle accident in Newton County, Missouri.[2] Other emergency personnel were already at the scene when Sgt. Frazier arrived.[3] As Frazier approached the pickup truck involved in the accident, he noticed the defendant, Terrell Gaw, nearby.[4] Upon questioning, Gaw stated that he owned the truck.[5] Gaw's eyes appeared "glassy and bloodshot," and he could not stand up without leaning on another vehicle or swaying.[6] Frazier could smell intoxicants and burned marijuana, and believed Gaw was intoxicated.[7]

Sgt. Frazier asked for Gaw's marijuana, which Gaw produced from his pants pocket.[8] Frazier then arrested Gaw for possession of marijuana.[9] With Gaw's consent, Frazier gave Gaw a portable breath test, which showed a high alcohol level.[10] Frazier then asked Gaw if he had been driving the truck; Gaw first denied driving the truck, then admitted to being the driver.[11] At the time of these statements, Gaw had not yet been warned of his Miranda rights.[12] After receiving his Miranda warning, Gaw affirmed that he was the driver of the pickup truck.[13] Gaw was tried and convicted of felony driving while intoxicated[14] and was found to be, and sentenced as, a chronic offender.[15]

Gaw asserted on appeal that his admissions before receiving a Miranda warning should not have been admissible.[16] He also asserted that his post-warning statements should not have been admitted because the pre-warning questioning "rendered the warnings ineffective."[17] Without these statements, Gaw claimed there was insufficient evidence to show he was driving, and therefore insufficient evidence to convict him of driving while intoxicated.[18] The State conceded that the pre-warning questioning by Sgt. Frazier violated Gaw's Miranda rights but argued that Gaw's post-warning admissions of the same facts "rendered the earlier violation of Miranda rights harmless."[19] The Supreme Court of Missouri agreed with the State and held that both sets of statements were admissible because Frazier did not intentionally withhold the warning in order to subvert Gaw's Miranda rights.[20]

II. Legal Background

Terrell Gaw's case was clearly governed by existing precedent. The Supreme Court of Missouri was left to ask, which precedent was to be followed?

A. Miranda Rights

In Miranda v. Arizona,[21] the U.S. Supreme Court held that a criminal suspect has a right to warnings of his right against self-incrimination once in custody.[22] Statements procured from a suspect in custody through interrogation are inadmissible in trial unless given voluntarily[23] and preceded by a Miranda warning.[24]

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri v. Seibert that a statement obtained by a police officer is inadmissible when the officer intentionally gives a Miranda warning "midstream" in order to undermine the warning's effectiveness.[25] However, Seibert was a fractured opinion where a four-justice plurality held that a statement acquired through such tactics should be judged by an objective standard.[26] This objective standard would use a multi-factor test to weigh whether the Miranda warnings had been effective in advising the suspect of his rights, regardless of the interrogating officer's intent.[27] However, Justice Kennedy, who concurred in the judgment and cast the deciding fifth vote, would have used a subjective test whereby the statement would only be suppressed if the interrogating officer intended to evade the suspect's Miranda rights.[28] Justice Kennedy's test would require a factual finding by the trial court that the officer was attempting to thwart the suspect's Miranda protection.

B. Selection & Application of Precedent

Where no single opinion captures a majority vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, the holding of the case is the narrowest common holding of those justices who concurred in the judgment.[29] Therefore, the Supreme Court of Missouri reasoned, Justice Kennedy's opinion controls because it was the position taken by the Justice who concurred in the judgment on the narrowest grounds.[30] Because "a majority of the United States Supreme Court did not adopt the four-justice plurality's suggestion of a multi-factor test," Justice Kennedy's opinion controls, as it was "consistent with, although narrower than, the approach the plurality advocated."[31]
On an appeal from a motion to suppress, there must be "substantial evidence" to support the ruling.[32] Facts and inferences are interpreted in favor of the trial court's decision, and contrary evidence is disregarded.[33] Here, Sgt. Frazier's testimony that his interrogation of Gaw "was not part of a deliberate plan to undermine Gaw's understanding of the Miranda warnings" provided substantial evidence to support the trial court's ruling.[34] The same testimony supported the trial court's finding that Gaw's post-Miranda statement was made voluntarily.[35] Finding no aspect of the trial court's ruling unsupported, the court affirmed Gaw's conviction for driving while intoxicated.[36] In sum, the high standard of review, combined with Sgt. Frazier's testimony that he did not intentionally withhold Gaw's Miranda warning created an insurmountable burden for Gaw on appeal.

III. Commentary

This case correctly concludes that United States Supreme Court precedent compels the adoption of Justice Kennedy's subjective intent test for midstream Miranda warnings issued during questioning. The Supreme Court of Missouri's interpretation of precedent narrows the focus of suppression hearings regarding midstream warnings to a single issue of fact: the interrogating officer's intent. However, this inquiry also places an increased burden on counsel and the trial court to accurately determine that intent. Although the command to focus on a single question is refreshingly simple, finding the answer to this question may prove maddeningly complex.

- Cole David Bradbury

[1] No. 89820, 2009 WL 1456345 (Mo. 2009).
[2] Id. at *1.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at *2.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.010.1 (2008).
[15] Gaw, supra at *1 & n.1.
[16] Id. at *2.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at *7.
[19] Id. at *3.
[20] Id. at *6-7.
[21] 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
[22] Id. at 444.
[23] Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, 314 (1985).
[24] State v. Copeland, 928 S.W.2d 828, 852 (Mo. 1996) (en banc) (overruled on other grounds).
[25] Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004).
[26] Id. at 611-12 (Souter, J.).
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at 618, 622 (Kennedy, J., concurring in the judgment).
[29] Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).
[30] State v. Gaw, 2009 WL 1456345, at *5 (Mo. 2009).
[31] Id.
[32] State v. Rousan, 961 S.W.2d 831, 845 (Mo. 1998) (en banc).
[33] State v. Galazin, 58 S.W.3d 500, 507 (Mo. 2001) (en banc).
[34] Gaw, 2009 WL 1456345 at *6.
[35] Id. at *7.
[36] Id.