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Criminal Practice – Murder – Confessions – Hospitalized Suspect– Miranda Rights – Inconsistent Statement

Criminal Practice – Murder – Confessions – Hospitalized Suspect– Miranda Rights – Inconsistent Statement

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State v. Portillo (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-198-16, 29 pp.) (Ann Marie Calabria, J.) Appealed from Forsyth County Superior Court (Edgar Gregory, J.) N.C. App.

Holding: After exchanging gunfire with and killing his intended robbery victim, defendant was hospitalized at the time he was questioned by police. Even though the interrogating officers stood around defendant as he lay in the hospital bed, any restraint in movement defendant may have experienced was due to his medical treatment and not the actions of the police officers.

We find no error in defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder.

While it is true that defendant would not have been permitted to leave the hospital unless he obtained police clearance, a determination of custody depends on objective circumstances and not the undisclosed subjective views of the interrogating officers.

Defendant argues that he was under the influence of pain medication and the previous night’s anesthesia, yet nothing in the record indicates that defendant was incapable of understanding the questions he was asked. The ICU nurse specifically told a detective that the pain medication would not impair defendant’s ability to answer questions.

Although the officers may have arrived at the hospital with the intention of arresting defendant, officers’ plans, when not made known to a defendant, have no bearing on whether an interview is custodial. Defendant’s Miranda rights were not triggered simply because he had become the focus of the detectives’ suspicions.

Defendant fails to identify any evidence suggesting that he was aware of the detectives’ knowledge and beliefs regarding the case at the time of questioning. Whatever degree of suspicion the detectives may have conveyed through their questioning, a reasonable person in defendant’s position would not have been justified in believing he was the subject of a formal arrest or was restrained in his movement by police action.

The record supports the trial court’s conclusion that defendant was not in custody when his Dec. 17, 2009, statement was given. Because defendant was not in custody, Miranda warnings were not required, and the trial court did not err in admitting defendant’s voluntary statement at trial.

Even if the investigating officers had been required to advise defendant of his Miranda rights on December 17 and failed to do so, such a violation would not require suppression of defendant’s Dec. 23, 2009, statement because his December 17 statement was neither coerced nor made under circumstances calculated to undermine his free will. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in refusing to suppress defendant’s December 23 statement.

Police obtained a warrant for defendant’s arrest on December 17 but did not inform him of the charge until after he made his December 23 statement. Defendant claims he had a fundamental right to be informed of the pending charges before being questioned by law enforcement because without that knowledge, he could not knowingly and intelligently make a decision about the exercise of his rights. But no such principle of law exists. A person does not have to know all the legal consequences of making a confession in order for the confession to be admitted into evidence.

Though additional information may have been useful to defendant or may have influenced his decision to confess, any violation of G.S. § 15A-501 (an officer has a duty to inform the arrestee of the charge against him) was “technical” as opposed to substantial and did not render defendant’s December 23 statement involuntary or inadmissible.

After his December 17 statement, defendant was handcuffed to his hospital bed, but he was not taken before a magistrate until three days later, when he was released from the hospital. When the delay – which was largely due to defendant’s medical treatment – is viewed in context, there was no substantial violation of G.S. § 15A-511.

The trial court properly concluded that the inculpatory statements at issue did not result from substantial violations of Chapter 15A’s provisions, and the court did not err in denying defendant’s motion to suppress his December 23 statement.

Defendant made an inconsistent statement to a police officer on Dec. 19, 2009 (“I am … getting in trouble for nothing. My friend asked me to go with him. I stood around, and then I got shot. My friend ran. And now I can’t feel my leg.”). Because defendant’s self-serving exculpatory statement was made separate and apart from the statements he made on Dec. 17 and 23, the state did not open the door for its admission. The trial court properly excluded defendant’s December 19 statement.

No error.

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