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James Collins v. Gaetz, 7th Cir No. 09-2212, 7/13/10

7th circuit court of appeals decision

Habeas – Miranda Waiver

Viewed through the deferential lens of 2254 habeas review, a state court finding that the severely mentally impaired Collins knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights an incriminatory statement was not unreasonable.

Collins had a Wechsler-scale IQ in the low- to mid-60s, exacerbated by a brain aneurysm that damaged his frontal lobes and left him with a language disorder. Two experts testified at his suppression hearing that he was unable to understand his Miranda rights, a third (“the preeminent physicians in his field”) was unable to reach an opinion on the matter, but a fourth expert testified that Collins was able to understand and waive his rights. The Seventh’s analysis is a familiar refrain, a bit of a set piece if you prefer: we might not have reached the same conclusion ourselves on more unfettered review, but given the deference we must assign, etc., etc.

Under this standard, a state court’s factual finding is never unreasonable “merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.” Wood v. Allen, 130 S. Ct. 841, 849 (2010). …

The state courts found that Collins understood enough of the police and prosecutor’s warnings to satisfy Miranda’s requirements. We cannot say that finding was unreasonable, although this is by no means an easy case. As the state courts acknowledged, Collins produced significant evidence of his limited mental capacity at the time he gave his statement. The state courts gave due consideration to that evidence. Our deferential evaluation of the record leads us to conclude that the state courts were not unreasonable in determining that Collins nevertheless understood to the requisite degree both the Miranda warnings and the consequences of waiving his rights.

Fair enough. But although the court’s conclusion might seem preordained, its analysis is far from mechanical. The court reminds that Miranda waiver has two quite separate components, voluntary (not raised by Collins) and knowing / intelligent waiver. The court’s recitation of the showing for each won’t be repeated here, except to note the court’s disavowal of the Sixth’s recent holding that a suspect’s utter incomprehension of rights is meaningless so long as the police are unaware of his disability, p. 27 n. 6, citing Garner v. Mitchell, 557 F.3d 257 (6th Cir. 2009) (en banc). The problem then becomes:

But even in the absence of intentional coercion, if Collins had insufficient mental capacity to understand what the officers and prosecutor were saying to him, he could not have waived his rights.What level of understanding, then, does Miranda require before a defendant can intelligently waive his rights and give an admissible statement?

The court answers its own question by discerning that the bar to admissibility is “relatively low.” The court marshals examples illustrating the point, including a few low bars that the government was still unable to hurdle:

… It is only when the evidence in the case shows that the defendant could not comprehend even the most basic concepts underlying the Miranda warnings that the courts have found an unintelligent waiver. One example is a defendant whose command of English is so poor that the police might as well have been speaking gibberish. See, e.g., United States v. Alarcon, 95 Fed. Appx. 954, 955-57 (10th Cir. 2004) (defendant understood only “bits and pieces” of English and often pretended to understand English out of embarrassment and a desire to cooperate); United States v. Garibay, 143 F.3d 534, 537-38 (9th Cir. 1998) (no evidence that defendant spoke enough English to understand warnings, and several witnesses testified that he spoke only a few words of English).

So, if you’re wondering, the line can at least be drawn at utter incomprehension. Now all you have to do is show it.

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