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Criminal Practice – Juvenile – Constitutional – Miranda Waiver – Voluntariness & Understanding

State v. Saldierna (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-204-17, 25 pp.) (Wanda Bryant, J.) Appealed from Mecklenburg County Superior Court (Forrest Bridges & Jesse Caldwell, JJ.) On remand from the N.C. Supreme Court. N.C. App.

Holding: Although the juvenile defendant’s request to call his mother was not a clear invocation of his statutory right to have his mother present, defendant’s non-responses and “unintelligible” answers (per the transcript) to key questions about his understanding of the waiver form lead the court to conclude that defendant did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his statutory and constitutional rights before responding to police questioning.

We reverse the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress his statements, vacate the judgments entered upon defendant’s guilty pleas, and remand to the trial court with instructions to grant the motion to suppress.

As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Haley v. State of Ohio, 332 U.S. 596 (1948), when reviewing a juvenile’s confession, “we cannot give any weight to recitals which merely formalize constitutional requirements.”

In this case, there is no indication that defendant had any familiarity with the criminal justice system, and there are factors in the record which indicate that defendant did not fully understand Detective Kelly’s questions such that he freely and intelligently waived his rights.

To be valid, a waiver should be unequivocal and unassailable when the subject is a juvenile.

Despite the trial court’s many findings of fact that defendant “indicated he understood” Detective Kelly’s questions and statements regarding his rights, the evidence does not support those findings. Further, the findings do not reflect the scrutiny that a trial court is required to give in juvenile cases.

During voir dire, Detective Kelly indicated that defendant had issues understanding both written and spoken English. Thus, even if defendant did sign the English version of the Juvenile Waiver of Rights form, the evidence in the record does not fully support that defendant knew or understood the implications of what he was signing.

Furthermore, when Detective Kelly tells defendant “I am signing my name below,” she then asks, “Do you understand this? Initial, sign, date and time,” presumably instructing defendant to initial, sign, and date the English version of the form, which he does. But no response is recorded that he “understood” what was being asked by Detective Kelly — indeed, the next intelligible utterance made by defendant is “Um, can I call my mom now?”

No copy of the Spanish version of the Juvenile Waiver of Rights form exists in the record. Thus, the trial court’s Finding of Fact No. 4 — “[t]hat Defendant was advised of his juvenile rights … in written Spanish” – is not supported by documentary evidence in the record. Accordingly, despite defendant’s “express written waiver,” the evidence does not support the trial court’s ultimate conclusion that defendant executed a valid waiver.

In addition, before beginning her questioning of defendant about multiple felony charges, Detective Kelly said, “This is not a huge deal….” Arguably, this statement mischaracterized the gravity of the situation in an attempt to extract information from a juvenile defendant. Such a mischaracterization by an interrogating official surely cuts squarely against our legislature’s well-founded policy of special protections for juveniles, especially where, as here, nothing in the record indicates that defendant had any prior experience with law enforcement officers such that he would have been aware of criminal procedure generally or the consequences of speaking with the police.

Our Supreme Court has determined that this juvenile’s request to call his mother after signing a waiver form was not an invocation of his right to have a parent present. However, defendant’s act of asking to call his mother immediately after he ostensibly executed a form stating he was giving up his rights, including his right to have a parent present, shows enough uncertainty, enough anxiety on the juvenile’s behalf, so as to call into question whether, under all the circumstances present in this case, the waiver was (unequivocally) valid.

Rather, his last ditch effort to call his mother (for help), after his prior attempt to call her had been unsuccessful, was a strong indication that he did not want to waive his rights at all. Yet, after a second unsuccessful attempt to reach his working parent failed, this juvenile, who had just turned 16 years old, probably felt that he had no choice but to talk to the officers.

Based on this record, it appears that defendant did not realize he had the choice to refuse to waive his rights, as the actions he took were not consistent with a voluntary waiver. As a result, any “choice” defendant had to waive or not waive his rights is meaningless where the record does not indicate that defendant truly understood that he had a choice at all.

“Indeed, the pressure of custodial interrogation is so immense that it can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed. That risk is all the more troubling – and recent studies suggest, all the more acute – when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.” J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011).

Based on the totality of the circumstances, we hold the trial court erred in concluding that defendant knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived his statutory and constitutional rights, and therefore, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s motion to suppress.

Vacated, reversed, and remanded.

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