US v Sweeney – 1st Circuit (11APR2018)

US v Sweeney – 1st Circuit (11APR2018)

This is a case about what constitutes an interrogation for Miranda purposes and what it takes in order to successfully invoke the right to counsel during a suspect interrogation.

When the defendant was arrested in his home he asked the agents what the charges were against him. When an FBI agent told him that he was being charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, the defendant stated “I don’t even own a computer.” The defendant was not mirandized until he was brought to the police station after his arrest. At the station he was given Miranda warnings and was asked if he understood his rights to which he said yes. He was then asked to sign a form acknowledging that he understood his rights and was willing to be question without a lawyer. He told the officers he did not have his glasses and they offered to suspend the questioning so he could get his glasses but the defendant declined. The agent offered to read the form again but he rejected the offer again and signed the Miranda form.

About 10 minutes into the interrogation the agents asked the defendant about his email accounts that were the subject of this child pornography criminal investigation. The defendant stated “I’m trying to keep myself, I don’t want to dig a hole I need to speak to a lawyer.” The agent told the defendant “it certainly your right to talk to a lawyer so if you want to be done here were done.” When the defendant made another statement about digging himself into a whole the agent asked him “so are you asking for a lawyer?” In response, the defendant asked “do I need a lawyer?” The agent explained that he could not answer that question and they offered the defendant some time to think about it and they left the room. When they returned the defendant stated “I’m screwed. I need a lawyer.” At that point the agents ended the interview.

The defendant sought to suppress this statement made during his arrest when he said “I don’t even own a computer” as being made during an interrogation in violation of Miranda. The First Circuit agreed with the District Court and held that the defendant statement was not the product of an interrogation. The defendant asked the arresting officer a question and the officer responded and the officers comment did not require response on the part of the defendant and therefore it could not be classified as interrogatory.

The defendant next sought to suppress the statement “I am screwed” claiming that his waiver and consent was not knowing and intelligent and made voluntarily because he did not have his glasses and he could not read the form. The court noted that the form was read to him, they offered to give him his glasses, and then when he declined they offered to read the form to him yet again, which he also declined. Therefore, the court concluded that the waiver was knowing and intelligent and voluntary. The defendant also sought to have the statement “I am screwed” suppressed because it came after he invoked his right to counsel. The court noted that the invocation of the right to counsel has to be affirmative and unambiguous. If the suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, then the officers are not required to stop the questioning. The circuit court agreed with the District Court in concluding that the defendant did not invoke the right to counsel until he said “I am screwed. I need a lawyer.”  Accordingly, the statement “I am screwed” was not suppressed and could be admitted as evidence of admission of guilt.

For a complete PDF version of this case, click here.