Suppressing Statements (Part Two- When Is Police Conduct an Interrogation?)

This is the second part of a multipart blog post written by a New York criminal defense attorney centering around issues concerning Miranda rights and what the remedy is when they are violated. Part One had to do with when a person is considered to be in police custody. This part centers around when police conduct constitutes an interrogation.

Whether police actions are legally classified as “an interrogation” are significant for a number of reasons. In addition to the issues mentioned in part one, which centered around whether a person is considered to be under arrest, the issue of whether something is an interrogation is important. The reason is because if you are in custody AND the police are interrogating you, then the police must read you your Miranda rights prior to the interrogation. If they fail to do so and you are in custody and you are being interrogated, then anything you say will be suppressed. This means the government cannot use what you say against you at trial. So what is an interrogation?

Watchers of police procedurals think they know an interrogation when they see one. The shows usually depict an arrestee in a dark looking cell with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. They also usually depict a bunch of police officers observing from behind a two-way mirror while other cops sit in with the arrestee and do a “good cop/bad cop” routine on the guy. Yes, in that situation, the police would need to Mirandize the arrestee prior to this happening if they want to use his statements. But what about when the police conduct is a bit more ambiguous? What if the conversation with the police happens at a pizzeria? What if its in a police car on the way to a pizzeria? What if its in a police car on the way to jail? When is the police questioning legally considered an interrogation?

The United States Supreme Court answered these questions in 1980 in a case called “Rhode Island v. Innis.” In that case, a guy was arrested for suspicion of committing a robbery with a sawed off shotgun. After he was arrested, the police read him his rights and he told them he wanted a lawyer. The individual police officers were then instructed by a superior officer to transport him to another precinct, but to refrain from questioning him without a lawyer present. On the way to the new location, one of the officers remarked towards one of the other officers that its a shame the shotgun was missing because there are a lot of kids around and one of them could find the gun and accidentally hurt someone else. Innis, worried that his gun might cause unintended harm to a kid, told the police to turn around because he’ll them where the gun was located. At his trial, his lawyer argued that the gun and the statement must be suppressed because they were obtained in violation of his rights since he told the police he wanted a lawyer prior to making the statement. The government argued that even though the statement was made after he told the police he wanted a lawyer, the statement was spontaneously uttered and therefore not a response to an interrogation.

The Supreme Court agreed with the government and found the statements and the gun admissible because an interrogation exists whenever a person either is expressly being questioned or whenever there is a “functional equivalent.” Here, the police conduct did not rise to the level of “functional equivalent.” This means that since the police didn’t expressly question him, but were more talking to each other, it wasn’t an interrogation. However, had the police engaged an a rouse to get him to talk, then this might be the “functional equivalent” of express questioning.

The bottom line is that the police are conducting an interrogation whenever either their words or their actions are intended to illicit an incriminating response. So if the police ask you where the body, its an interrogation. If you are in a car with a cop and you hear a cop say to the other cop, “its a shame the victim’s family will never find the body so she can have a proper funeral,” it’s only an interrogation if the officer said that to try and get you to talk. This is all complicated stuff. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you are in a situation where the police are trying to use your words against.