In State v. Rivas, 251 N.J. 132, 137 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the defendant, who made an equivocal request for counsel, “freely initiated further communications with the police immediately on the heels of a nearly six-hour unlawful interrogation that led to a full confession.”
In Rivas, the defendant reported to the police in the morning of February 24, 2014, that his wife had not returned from a trip to the pharmacy to buy sinus medicine the prior evening. Id. at 140. However, the detectives discovered that defendant’s wife did not appear on the store surveillance video footage from that that evening. Ibid. Additionally, one of the detectives noticed that boots and a jacket matching the description that the defendant gave of the clothing his wife was wearing when she allegedly set out for the pharmacy, were still in the defendant’s apartment. Ibid.
Over the next few days, the police secured surveillance footage showing that the truck registered to the defendant had traveled on the streets of Elizabeth in the early morning hours of February 24, when the defendant’s wife went missing. Ibid. After the defendant was shown the surveillance footage, he told the police that he had left his two-year old daughter home alone for an hour or two while he drove around looking for his wife, who he thought might have been meeting with someone. Ibid. As a result, the defendant was arrested and incarcerated for child endangerment and providing false information to the police. Id. at 140-141. While in jail, the defendant attempted suicide and was hospitalized and placed under police guard. Id. at 141.
On March 18, 2014, after reading the defendant his Miranda rights, three detectives interrogated the defendant in the hospital for almost six hours, during which he confessed to killing his wife. Id. at 141. During the interrogation the defendant made several “objectively unclear and ambiguous” requests for counsel. Id. at 141-42. The detectives did not, however, attempt any further clarification and the interrogation continued for approximately another five hours. Id. at 143. Toward the end of the interrogation the defendant “replied repeatedly that he wanted to speak with the three detectives the next day.” Id. at 145.
On the following day, March 19, 2014, the defendant was discharged from the hospital draped in a hospital gown and transported by police officers to the Prosecutor’s Office where he gave a videotaped statement to the detectives. Id. at 145. The detectives again read the defendant his Miranda rights and informed him, as per his request, that a person from the Uruguayan Consulate had related to the Elizabeth Police Department that the defendant’s family was prepared to retain an attorney to represent him. Ibid. Nonetheless, the defendant waived his rights and indicated his willingness to speak with the detectives. Ibid. During the interrogation he repeated his confession to having killed his wife and having disposed of her body in an abandoned house in Chatam. Ibid.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress his March 18 statement but not the March 19 statement, finding that the defendant had made equivocal requests for counsel, which required the detectives to seek clarification or cease questioning, which they did not do. Id. at 146. The trial court found, however, that after the defendant’s initial tainted statement, on March 18, he “repeatedly beseeched the officers to return to talk to him again the next day,” thereby satisfying the requirements in Edwards v. Ariz., 451 U.S. 477 (1981). State v. Rivas, 251 N.J. at 146. Thus, the trial court found that the detectives were permitted to initiate further communications with the defendant on March 19. Ibid.
At trial, the defendant’s March 19 videotaped confession detailing his violent struggle with his wife, as well as how he killed her and disposed of her body, “was perhaps the most critical piece of evidence. . . .” Id. at 148. The jury acquitted the defendant of murder but convicted him of the lesser-included offense of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and all the other charges in the indictment. Id. at 149.
The defendant appealed his conviction, challenging the admissibility of his March 19 statements. Ibid. The Appellate Division upheld the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, substantially for the reasons given by the trial court. Id. at 150.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. Id. at 161. The Court set forth that in Edwards “the United States Supreme Court held that if ‘an accused has invoked his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation,’ the questioning must cease and cannot resume ‘until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police.’” Id. at 154 (quoting Edwards v. Ariz., 451 U.S. at 484-85). Thus, Edwards established a “’bright-line rule’ that all questioning must cease after an accused requests counsel.” Id. at 155 (quoting Smith v. Illinois, 469 U.S. 91, 98 (1984)). “When law enforcement officers violate the dictates of Edwards, suppression is mandated. . . .” Id. at 155.
The New Jersey Supreme Court found that:
Based on the Edwards line of cases, we cannot conclude that, after [the defendant] invoked his right to counsel, and was subjected to a nearly six-hour unbroken interrogation in violation of our state law privilege against self-incrimination — an interrogation that elicited a damning confession and [the defendant’s] offer of cooperation to locate his wife’s body – [the defendant] freely and voluntarily reinitiated conversations with the Elizabeth detectives before they left the hospital on March 18, 2014. In short, under the Edwards jurisprudence, the interrogation never ceased after [the defendant’s] equivocal invocation of the right to counsel; [he] remained under the sway of an unlawful interrogation and tainted confession, and therefore it would be a fiction to say that [the defendant] reinitiated communications. Under those circumstances, the detectives had no lawful authority to interrogate [the defendant] on March 19, even though he was properly Mirandized and waived his rights.
[Id. at 158.]
The New Jersey Supreme Court held that in light of the Edwards violation and in the absence of the defendant voluntarily initiating further communications with the detectives, the March 19 statements must be suppressed. Id. at 161. “That is because there is no attenuation remedy for an Edwards violation.” Ibid. “The full-throated Miranda warnings and waiver of rights on March 19 cannot resuscitate the confession on that day — a confession that largely mimicked the suppressed confession of the previous day.” Ibid.
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