“You have the right to remain silent . . .”

This post also appears in much the same form on the SCOV Law Blog.

State v. Robitaille, 2011 VT 135

Arrested? —Just shut up.


Any criminal-defense attorney will tell you—the police are not in the business of helping defendants. Do not talk to them. They are not your friends, and they are not there to help you. They are there to investigate a case, arrest you, and obtain a confession or evidence of guilt if possible. So if you are in custody, bite your tongue and wait for your attorney.

Unfortunately for him, this is not what Defendant in the present case did. Defendant was arrested following an assault and robbery at a pharmacy. A deputy sheriff met defendant at the police station and read Defendant his Miranda rights. Defendant said, more or less, “I’m not talkin’ and I want a lawyer.” The deputy ended the “conversation,” but he didn’t contact a public defender right away. On the other hand, Defendant didn’t name an attorney that he wanted to talk to.

The deputy arranged transportation for Defendant to another facility. He then conversed with another police officer within earshot of Defendant. The conversation had nothing to do with Defendant. Defendant then asked if his girlfriend had been arrested. The deputy responded that she had been released, and resumed his conversation with the other officer. Defendant asked some more questions; the deputy gave him some answers.

Eventually, Defendant asked the deputy what kind of deal he could get. The deputy gave Defendant the standard line that goes, more or less—“Well, I can’t make a deal, but I am a very close personal friend with the State’s Attorney, and as long as you admit that that you did everything I’m investigating you for, well, he’ll prob’ly just give you a few traffic tickets.” (Please note this is not what the deputy actually said; this is my cynical-defense-attorney take on the standard exchange, but I do not think I am that far off.) Defendant waited another minute and agreed to talk. The deputy reiterated Defendant’s Miranda rights and asked Defendant if he wanted a lawyer present. Defendant said he did not; he signed a waiver form and provided a statement to police. All told, this occurred over the span of fifteen minutes.

Defendant filed, and the trial court denied, a motion to suppress. The court found that defendant voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived his Miranda rights before making any statements to police. The trial court also found that Defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel and subsequent waiver did not require suppression under the Public Defender Act (also known as the “other” PDA).

The PDA requires police to contact an attorney at “the commencement of detention” if the accused doesn’t have an attorney and doesn’t effectively waive his right to one. The court found that Defendant was detained for purposes of the Act.

So, under the PDA, the deputy had a duty to contact the appropriate public defender. The issue was whether he had to do so within the fifteen-minute timeframe in which Defendant invoked and waived his right to counsel.

In ruling on Defendant’s motion to dismiss, the trial court looked to the purpose of Miranda—specifically its focus on preventing bad-faith interrogation techniques. The court found that there was no bad faith here, partly because the delay could be explained by arranging transportation for Defendant. And so, Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed.

The SCOV begins with Defendant’s right-to-counsel argument under the PDA and Chapter I, Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution. The PDA provides, inter alia (that’s fancy-lawyer talk for “among other things”), for counsel in a situation such as the Defendant found himself in “upon commencement of detention.”

Defendant argued plain language—the deputy was obligated to contact a public defender for him either at the moment that he was detained or at the moment that he invoked his right to counsel. Because this didn’t happen, his statements should have been suppressed.

The SCOV ain’t buyin’ what Defendant’s sellin’. Citing legislative intent, the SCOV reasons that “upon commencement of detention” does not impose an obligation on law-enforcement officers to contact a public defender at the exact moment a defendant is arrested or detained, or at the very instant that the right to counsel is invoked. Without specifically determining exactly when counsel must be contacted, the SCOV holds that failing to contact a public defender within fifteen minutes doesn’t warrant suppression. The SCOV notes, as the trial court did below, that the underlying purpose of Miranda is to prevent bad-faith custodial interrogation of criminal defendants and that such bad faith is not apparent here. The SCOV also notes that the Defendant here reinitiated the conversation, which is constitutionally permissible.

The SCOV also rejects Defendant’s arguments that the trial court impermissibly required him to prove that the deputy delayed contacting an attorney in bad faith and that the court committed clear error in finding that the delay was caused by arranging transportation for defendant. Because the SCOV sees no violation, it notes that the arguments are extraneous. The SCOV also notes, however, that bad faith, or its absence, was a relevant consideration in this context.

Defendant next argued that the State failed to prove he knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his right to counsel. The State introduced only his signed written waiver in support of its position. Defendant also argued that the trial court wrongly shifted the burden of proof to him, and that it failed to consider the factors necessary to find a knowing and intelligent waiver.

The SCOV notes that defendant was twice informed of his Miranda rights. He signed the written waiver form, “a portion of which was read out loud to him.” He also repeated on an audio recording that he had been advised of his rights. He agreed, on tape, to speak to the deputy without a lawyer present. The SCOV reasons that there’s “ample evidence” to support the trial court’s waiver-was-valid decision.

The SCOV discusses other aspects of Defendant’s confession, including his assertion that he was on drugs (Oxycontin) at the time, and the trial court’s failure to make specific findings regarding his age and experience. It is to no avail, however, as the SCOV ultimately affirms the trial court’s finding that defendant voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived his rights.

So, the bottom line is that when you get arrested, you have to keep your mouth shut for more than fifteen minutes before you start talking again. We’re not sure how much longer, but at least one other case cited by the SCOV suggests three-and-a-half hours will do it.

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