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Miranda custody; “private safety” exception to Miranda

State v. Corey J. Uhlenberg, 2013 WI App 59; case activity

Miranda custody

Uhlenberg was in “custody” during an interview at the police department, so the circuit court should have suppressed the statements Uhlenberg made during the interrogation after he requested an attorney:

¶11      Throughout its arguments, the State emphasizes the fact that the detective repeatedly told Uhlenberg that he was not under arrest. But while an arrest would mean that a suspect is in “custody,” lack of an arrest does not end the inquiry.  The analysis asks whether a reasonable person would have felt free to end the questioning and leave the scene.  Martin, 343 Wis. 2d 278, ¶33.  In this case, the totality of the circumstances would have led a reasonable person in Uhlenberg’s position to conclude he was in custody. …

After setting out the details of how Uhlenberg was taken to the police department and how he was treated there (¶¶11-12), the court concludes:

¶13      We think no reasonable person in these circumstances—taken from home to the police department in handcuffs in a squad car, escorted into the booking area in handcuffs, placed in a locked interview room with little information about the reasons for the interview or when it might start, having a police escort in and out of the locked room to get water or use the toilet—would have felt free to end the questioning and leave the interview.  See Martin, 343 Wis. 2d 278, ¶¶33, 35; compare Mosher, 221 Wis. 2d at 206-07, 211-12, 219 (holding that a suspect was not in “custody” when he rode to the police station with an officer voluntarily, sat in the front seat of the squad car, exited the squad car on his own, walked into the station voluntarily, and was interviewed in an unlocked room).  So, Uhlenberg was in “custody” during the interrogation.  And when he said, “I am not going to say another word, and I want an attorney,” the detective had to stop the questioning.

“Private safety” exception to Miranda

Statements Uhlenberg made during a failed suicide attempt–when an officer witnessed Uhlenberg removing his shoe laces, concluded he was going to strangle himself, and rushed into the room asking Uhlenberg what he was doing–were not custodial interrogation because they fell within the “private safety” exception to the Miranda rule adopted in State v. Kunkel, 137 Wis. 2d 172, 185, 404 N.W.2d 69 (Ct. App. 1987) (an emergency sufficient to excuse Miranda requirements contains the following elements: 1. urgency of need in that no other course of action promises relief; 2. the possibility of saving human life by rescuing a person whose life is in danger; 3. rescue as the primary purpose and motive of the interrogators).

The court concludes the exception applies to protect the life of the defendant, and not just the life of another person, even though Kunkel involved questioning the defendant as to the whereabouts of his missing nine-month-old child :

¶16      We reject Uhlenberg’s argument that the “private safety” exception should not extend to risks of harm to the defendant in addition to a third person.  Instead we agree with the numerous jurisdictions holding that there is no legitimate reason not to apply the “private safety” exception to situations in which the defendant is at risk of harm.  The interest in preserving the defendant’s life is a pressing human interest, one that “outweighs the need for the prophylactic” Miranda rule.  See People v. Stevenson, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 878, 880-81 (Cal. Ct. App. 1996); see also State v. Betances, 828 A.2d 1248 (Conn. 2003); Benson v. State, 698 So. 2d 333 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997).

The court also concludes that the first element of the exception–urgency of need to question Uhlenberg about what he was doing–was satisfied in this case:

¶17      …. An officer observing a defendant making moves as if to try to kill himself is justified in rushing to the scene and asking related questions without stopping to second-guess himself about whether those questions would cause the defendant to incriminate himself.  The point of the “private safety” exception is that such a situation cannot properly be characterized as “custodial interrogation.”

Not all courts have extended the “private safety” doctrine to the defendant, see, e.g., State v. Montoya937 P.2d 145 (Utah Ct. App. 1997), but many have, as represented by the cases cited in the decision. What isn’t mentioned by the court is that the cases it cites involve defendants who have apparently ingested potentially dangerous or even fatal amounts of drugs in attempts to destroy or conceal evidence. In a situation like that, questioning the defendant about what he or she just swallowed really does seem necessary to determine what medical treatment might be needed. Not so here: The jailer saw Uhlenberg remove his shoe laces and hold one up as if he might strangle himself; the jailer rushed into the room and asked Uhlenberg what he was doing. (¶4). Not surprising the jailer would ask that question, but it was hardly necessary to deal with the situation, unlike with a defendant who’s swallowed some unknown substance; why not just grab the shoe lace and end the “pressing emergency” then and there? The court’s analysis doesn’t address these factual distinctions or explain why they don’t provide a “legitimate reason not to apply the ‘private safety'” exception to situations in which the defendant is at risk of harm that can be avoided without questioning.

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