Law enforcement must clarify a juvenile’s ambiguous reference to his right to have a parent present during a custodial interrogation, according to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals held in State v. Saldierna (No. COA14-1345) (July 2015) that investigators must seek clarification when a juvenile asks to speak with his mother, even if the juvenile already waived and understood his rights. The case came to the Court of Appeals in somewhat of a first impression to discuss the future framework of an age-old problem: the custodial interrogation of a suspect pre-charge.

This should ring bells for anyone who follows the widely popular Serial podcasts. Serial investigates the circumstances behind the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in January 1999. Then 17, the state threw Syed through a lengthy interrogation and did not allow him to see his attorney or parents. Contrary to many jurisdictions in America, law enforcement did not stop interrogation even though Syed’s attorney was right outside the station demanding to see his client. In that case, law enforcement did not obtain a confession from Syed, but nonetheless charged him with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Many consider the desperate interrogation technique and its length a sign in and of itself that law enforcement considered the evidence against him weak, at best.

A custodial interrogation of a suspect behind law enforcement’s closed doors creates a condition ripe for abuse and manipulation, especially when the suspect is not an adult. For that reason, North Carolina law requires law enforcement to afford juveniles with even more protections than an adult suspect.

In North Carolina, law enforcement must inform a juvenile of the following pre-charge, custodial interrogation rights prior to questioning: 1) that the juvenile has a right to remain silent; 2) that any statement the juvenile does make can be and may be used against the juvenile; 3) that the juvenile has a right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian present during questioning; and, 4) that the juvenile has a right to consult with an attorney and that one will be appointed for the juvenile if the juvenile is not represented and wants representation. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B(a)(2013); (a)(1), (2), and (4) codify the 5th Amendment rights articulated in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966).

The Supreme Court of the United States held in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 459, 129 L. Ed. 2d 362, 371 (1994), that a “suspect must unambiguously request counsel…Although a suspect need not speak with the discrimination of an Oxford don, he must articulate his desire to have counsel present sufficiently clearly that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney.”

That initially didn’t look good for Saldierna. The suspect in the case asked to speak with his mother. It was ambiguously requested in context of his previously signed waiver, and the suspect did not make the request under the obviously presumed pretext that police discontinue questioning until she arrived. The court distinguished Saldierna’s request from previous unequivocal requests: like when the defendant requests to have a parent present during questioning or when a defendant makes the notation on the waiver form in writing.

Interestingly, though, the North Carolina Court of Appeals distinguished the right to have a parent present from the other three statutory requirements born from the Miranda doctrine. In contrast to the right to remain silent, the acknowledgement that words can be used against the defendant, and the right to an attorney, the right to have a parent present is not based in federal constitutional law. Instead, it is an additional protection the General Assembly afforded children to protect them from the inherent abuse associated with adults interrogating children.

In line with that reasoning, the Court of Appeals held that when a juvenile makes an objectively ambiguous reference to the right to have a parent present during questioning, it triggers a duty in law enforcement to clarify the meaning of that statement prior to resuming the interrogation.

The result of an infringement of pre-custodial rights is that law enforcement would not be able to use any confession made during the interrogation after the infringement. But that’s not the only reason why it’s important. In Syed’s case, an attorney present likely would have called the state on its bluff that Syed could be tried as an adult. This would have impacted the subsequent bail hearing when the judge denied bail requests, in part, because of the belief that it was a capital murder trial that the judge formed from law enforcement’s error when filling out the charging document that listed Syed as an adult.

In the Saldierna case, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court judgment and remanded the case for a hearing wherein the trial court must grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss the confession. That’s not only a huge win for Saldierna, but also for the many juvenile defendants who law enforcement routinely question. Syed’s case, and many like his, could have looked a lot different had he been afforded the same type of protection.

Taylor HastingsComment