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Seventh Circuit rejects factual findings of lower courts but affirms on the merits in close habeas loss

Jones v. Cromwell, 75 F.4th 722 (7th Cir. 2022).

In a disappointing defense loss, the Seventh Circuit holds that, at least under these circumstances, the defendant’s request for a “public pretender” was sufficiently ambiguous such that police had no obligation to cease their interrogation.

This case should be familiar to readers of this blog and involves the defendant’s request for a “public pretender” during a custodial interrogation. See our previous post on this case here.

Long story short, Jones turned himself in following suspicion that he had caused a fatal accident and fled the scene. (p. 2). Jones received his Miranda warnings and ultimately told the police, “So y’all can get a public pretender right now?” (p. 3). Law enforcement found his implied disparagement of public defenders a hilarious joke, and greeted it with hearty guffaws before telling Jones “‘Obviously due to the time right now, we can’t … um.’” (Id.).

Jones moved to suppress his resulting admission of wrongdoing, arguing that “it was based on a confession obtained in violation of his right to counsel under the Fifth Amendment.” (p. 4). The circuit court concluded that Jones’ “joke” did not count as an invocation of his right to counsel and denied the motion. (Id.). Jones appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. It concluded: (1) the trial court did not err in finding that Jones’ comment was a “joke;” and (2) this “joking statement” was not an unequivocal request for counsel and hence, there was no Fifth Amendment violation. (See unpublished opinion available here). The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied review and the district court denied the initial habeas petition, leading to this appeal in the Seventh Circuit.

Notably, the Seventh Circuit agrees with Jones’ interpretation of the recorded interview and is therefore “willing to accept Jones’s argument that he earnestly intended to refer to a public defender such that his question really should be understood to have been, ‘So y’all can get a public defender right now?'” (p. 7). Jones thus obtains a rare threshold victory in habeas corpus land by “proving that the state court made an unreasonable determination of the facts.” (Id.)

Jones, however, must still win on the legal merits, and this is where his claim fails. Under SCOTUS law, Jones’ request needed to be unambiguous. Citing Davis v. United Statesthe Seventh Circuit correctly frames the question as whether a “reasonable officer would understand the suspect’s statements as an unequivocal or unambiguous request for counsel.” (p. 5). Here, the Court performs a close read of the text and context of the exchange in order to conclude it is at least plausible to derive different meanings; accordingly, “as far as the Supreme Court is concerned,” there was no constitutional violation. (p. 9).

Significantly, the Seventh Circuit does at least acknowledge that some shady business may have occurred and therefore stops short of “condoning” the police conduct in this case. (p. 10). Certainly the Seventh Circuit thinks the officer should have sought clarification of Jones’ remark instead of offering an arguable “half-truth” (that it was too late to obtain a lawyer) and proceeding with the interrogation. Id. However, the Court reluctantly acknowledges that SCOTUS has imposed no such requirement on police; accordingly, it feels duty-bound to affirm. (Id.).

Obviously, this is a disappointing and frustrating outcome for a somewhat notorious case involving apparent disregard for a citizen’s constitutional rights. However, it is still a big deal that Jones was able to overcome so many successive levels of judicially-imposed gaslighting in order to disprove the “just a couple of guys sitting around in an interrogation room having a few laughs” reading of this inherently coercive police-citizen encounter. Jones deserves kudos for continuing to fight this particular battle, especially when the burden for overcoming trial court factual findings can seem nigh impossible to meet. And, while the Court’s application of the “reasonable officer” test seems highly debatable–especially in light of its other comments which come close to imputing a slight tinge of nefariousness to the officer’s conduct–the decision shows that discussions of “ambiguity” are nuanced and complex; mere hand-waves should not suffice. And, for those willing to tilt at windmills, the decision highlights the desperate need for more reform in this area so that Miranda warnings can actually be given force and meaning in actual practice.

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