In State v. Wade, 252 N.J. 209, 219 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the State could not “meet its heavy burden” of proving that the acknowledged Miranda[1] violation of failing to honor the defendant’s “unambiguous request for counsel” was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The police in Wade, responded to a report of a shooting in Paterson and found the victim in his vehicle, unresponsive and bleeding from apparent gunshot wounds.  Id. at 212.  The victim later died from those wounds.  Ibid.

On the following day, footage of the shooting was obtained from a nearby surveillance camera, which showed a man wearing a black jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt exit a dark-colored Audi sedan parked next to the victim’s car, shoot the victim several times, and then the shooter fled in the Audi.  Ibid.  Coincidently, as part of a separate investigation, the Auto Theft Task Force had obtained a communication data warrant authorizing installation of a GPS tracking device on a black Audi sedan, which had been reported stolen.  Ibid.   The data from the GPS placed the Audi at the scene of the victim’s murder and then at a nearby address, where the car remained for several hours.  Ibid.  The detectives recovered the vehicle and obtained additional surveillance footage which confirmed the GPS data and showed clear images of the defendant Jamal Wade exiting the vehicle at a liquor store later that day.  Id. at 212-13.  The detective recognized the defendant from “prior interactions.”  Id. at 213.

The defendant was arrested for murder and brought to police headquarters for questioning.   Ibid.  The detectives administered Miranda warnings. Ibid.  “Defendant verbally affirmed his understanding and signed a Miranda form, demonstrating that he understood his rights.”  Ibid.   However, as the detective read the waiver of rights section of the form, the defendant invoked his right to counsel by stating “I got a lawyer. . . . Let me talk to him.”  Id. at 213-14.  Notwithstanding that invocation, the detectives continued to question the defendant until he inculpated himself by identifying himself in the surveillance video from the liquor store.  Id. at 214.  The trial court held that the defendant’s statements were admissible in evidence and the defendant was found guilty on all counts.  Id. at 215.

On appeal, the State conceded “that defendant invoked his right to counsel and that the detectives should have ended the interrogation as soon as he did so,” but argued “that this error was harmless.”   Id. at 218.  Thus, the State argued that “any evidence obtained through the interrogation lacked material significance because the jury ‘would have heard the same evidence’ through the rest of the State’s case.”  Ibid.

The New Jersey Supreme Court considered the question of “whether it was harmless error to admit defendant’s statements, keeping in mind that [the Court] rarely find an error to be harmless when the State violates a defendant’s right against self-incrimination.”  Id. at 220.  The Court explained “[t]hat is not only because the right to counsel is so precious, but also because self-inculpatory statements are powerful evidence of guilt that is not easily overcome.”  Ibid.

The Court found that the admission of the defendant’s statements in Wade was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  Id. at 219-21.   The Court wrote that “this is not an instance of overwhelming, direct evidence.”  Id. at 221.  The Court held in cases where “the State’s theory hinges on circumstantial evidence of a defendant’s location at a particular time — a self-identifying, self-inculpatory statement that colors the defendant as a liar is not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Id. at 221.  “While police may extract such statements through interrogation, they must do so within the confines of the law.”  Ibid.   The Court was “satisfied that did not happen in this case,” and thus concluded “that only a new trial, one untainted by defendant’s unlawfully obtained admissions, can rectify the detectives’ failure to honor defendant’s Miranda rights.”  Id. at 222.

State v. Wade is a significant new case because it re-asserts the importance of the right to counsel and holds the State cannot “meet its heavy burden” of proving that the acknowledged Miranda violation of failing to honor the defendant’s request for counsel was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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[1] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)