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Friendly conversation doesn’t create custodial interrogation

A recent case reminds us that a friendly conversation (talk nice, think mean) doesn’t create a custodial interrogation

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The appellate court said there was no custodial interrogation requiring a Miranda warning.

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UNITED STATES V. LAROCHE, 2023 WL 6453719 (8th Cir. 2023)

Josephine Skunk called police and asked for an officer to come to her house because her son, Jade LaRoche, was “acting up.” As an officer drove to the Skunk residence, he learned LaRoche had an active arrest warrant. Skunk invited the officer into the living room and told LaRoche to join them. After speaking with LaRoche for a few minutes, the officer told LaRoche he was “going to have to take you because you got that warrant.” The officer asked LaRoche, “So what’s the warrant for? Do you know what it’s for?” LaRoche fled to the garage, the officer pursued and LaRoche knocked him down, escaping.

LaRoche was charged with forcibly assaulting, resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering with an officer, and inflicting bodily injury. A jury convicted him of forcible assault of an officer and the judge sentenced him to 44 months’ imprisonment. On appeal, LaRoche argued he was subjected to custodial interrogation and that his statements were not voluntary.

The trial judge ruled LaRoche’s responses to the officer’s questions were given voluntarily. The court emphasized the officer’s “amicable” conversation (once again, courts tend to find voluntariness when officers talk nice). The judge also noted the conversation was relatively brief and that LaRoche steered the conversation. The setting was not custodial; it happened in the living room, a familiar and relaxed setting, and with LaRoche’s mother present. The officer did not display any weapons or use physical force or heavy-handed tactics. Though the officer was standing between the door and LaRoche, the officer did not attempt to restrain LaRoche’s freedom of movement. The court noted the officer’s friendly conversation seemed to have been directed at persuading LaRoche to submit to custody peacefully, while LaRoche seemed to be trying to talk his way out of going to jail on the warrant.

The appellate court agreed, holding there was no custodial interrogation requiring a Miranda warning. Moreover, the court explained that, even if LaRoche was arguably in custody, “follow-up questions to clarify ambiguity do not amount to interrogation unless their point is to enhance the defendant’s guilt.” Thus, the court upheld the trial court’s denial of LaRoche’s suppression motion.

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.
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