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Statements – Voluntariness – Suspect’s “Severely Debilitated” Condition Coupled with “Subtle” Police Coercion

State v. Paul D. Hoppe, 2003 WI 43, affirming unpublished opinion
For Hoppe: William E. Schmaal, SPD, Madison Appellate

Issue/Holding: Under “somewhat unique” facts, a suspect’s statements made during interviews in a hospital over a three-day period while delusional and in the throes of acute alcohol withdrawal were involuntary despite the absence of any egregious police pressure. ¶¶47-59.

As suggested, this case is highly fact-specific, but what it seems to come down to is that Hoppe’s tether to reality was pretty frayed and the police, while dogged in the manner of a terrier going after a bone, were ankle-biting rather than going for his throat. On the other hand, given Hoppe’s condition, they didn’t have to go after the throat, which is really the point of this case: at the margins, relatively innocuous police conduct may be coercive. Just remember that you don’t find yourself at the margins that often. Hoppe presented expert suppression hearing testimony that during the time frame his condition “was severe, chronic, end-stage alcohol dependence; alcohol induced amnesiac disorder; alcohol induced psychotic disorder with delusions and hallucinations; alcohol withdrawal delirium; and alcohol related dementia (long-term decrease in cognitive functioning and memory which is present even after a person has recovered from alcohol withdrawal).” ¶24. There’s more, but that gives some of the flavor of Hoppe’s functionality.

Still, United States v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986) makes it clear that there must be police coercion for a statement to be involuntary, as the court recognizes, ¶37. “The court of appeals correctly explained that police coercion and a defendant’s personal characteristics are interdependent concepts. The greater the vulnerability of the defendant, the more easily the defendant may be coerced by subtle means.” ¶58. Though there were no threats, the tone “relatively friendly,” and no single act “egregious,” this suspect’s will to resist was overborne by “subtle” pressures that nonetheless would have been proper if used against someone not “uncommonly susceptible to police pressures.” ¶59.

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