Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pre- and post-Miranda confessions take center stage

It's been another busy (and, at times, discouraging) week for published criminal-law opinions in the Sixth Circuit. The court dipped into legal esoterica in the Olive opinion, addressing at length whether one of two money-laundering counts should have merged in light of United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008). (The court concluded that there was a "merger problem," but that, under Santos, the consequences were not "markedly increased" by virtue of the error, so no harm no foul.) The court also reversed the grant of sentencing-phase ineffective-assistance-of-counsel relief in a death-penalty case in Morris, once again demonstrating that it believes that AEDPA all but precludes relief even for objectively egregious IAC claims.

Perhaps most relevant to the defense bar is the opinion in United States v. Ray, in which the court took a hard look at the relationship between pre- and post-Miranda confessions, wading into a circuit split on the subject.

Based on a (later-contested) search warrant, officers discovered marijuana and firearms in Mr. Ray's home. According to Ray, the officers threatened to arrest Ray's live-in girlfriend --- the mother of his 14-year-old son --- and make his child a ward of the state if he did not talk to them. Prior to receiving Miranda warnings, Ray took responsibility for all of the contraband in the house. An hour and a half later, Ray made statements at the police station that were consistent with his pre-Miranda statements, but the district court refused to suppress those statements. The district court did not consider the Supreme Court's opinion in Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004), which addressed such questions. This failure alone was enough to warrant reversal, but the Sixth Circuit had to address what test to apply from Seibert's sorely divided opinion. Despite contrary precedent from other circuits, the court determined that because the plurality and dissent each received four votes, none of the opinions in Seibert "announce[d] a binding rule of law." Instead, the Sixth Circuit would have to formulate its own test. In doing so, it adopted the multi-factor test announced by the Seibert plurality, under which the admissibility of such statements "hinges on whether a 'reasonable person in the suspect's shoes could have seen the station house questioning as a new and distinct experience, [and whether] the Miranda warnings could have made sense as presenting a genuine choice whether to follow up on the earlier admission.'" The court further detailed the factors to be considered in that analysis.

The opinion is also highly citable with respect to what evidence provides proof that a firearm was possessed "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime" under 18 U.S.C. 924(c). Ray had three firearms, and the court held that two of them would not support such a conviction despite close proximity to drugs. One was an unloaded shotgun propped behind a door in the same room where drugs were found (with shotgun shells found in the same room), and another was a rifle in a room with no drugs. The court held that neither was "strategically located so that it is quickly and easily available for use." Unfortunately for Ray, a third weapon did suffice to meet the "in furtherance of" test, but this case may provide ammunition (pun intended) for defendants in future cases.

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