Letter from Attorney Should Have Ended Interrogation of Defendant

Stephanie Stout Feb. 3, 2015

The landmark court decision of Miranda v. Arizona established that if a person in custody states that he or she wishes to consult with an attorney before speaking, any statements made after invoking this right are involuntary, and may be excluded from evidence.

However, what if a person indicates they wish to consult an attorney in some way other than speaking? Could statements made thereafter still be suppressed from evidence? The United States Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Santistevan discussed this issue.

A letter from an attorney

The FBI was investigating a series of robberies in the Denver area when the defendant became a suspect. The FBI obtained a warrant for his arrest, and the defendant turned himself in. The FBI agent went to the police department to meet with the defendant, advised him of his Miranda rights, and asked if he wanted to speak about the robbery charges. The defendant declined, and the interview ended.

Six days later, the agent received a phone call from the defendant's girlfriend, saying that the defendant wanted to speak with him. The following morning, while traveling to the jail, the agent received a phone call from a public defender, advising the agent that the defendant did not wish to speak after all. The agent informed the attorney of his conversation with the girlfriend the previous night and indicated that he intended to visit the defendant to ask him directly if he wanted to make any statements or answer any questions. The attorney responded that she had given the defendant a letter to give to the agent if he went to the jail.

When the agent arrived at the jail, he told the defendant that he had spoken to an attorney who claimed to represent him and asked if he had a letter. The defendant handed him the letter from the public defender which stated that the defendant did not wish to speak to the agent without counsel present. The agent then asked the defendant if he still wished to speak. The defendant talked and was eventually moved to the FBI offices for questioning. Over the next three hours, the defendant made incriminating statements with respect to two robberies. Later, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements.

Defendant expressed his desire

On appeal, the court noted that a suspect 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.

Here, the court found that the text of the letter could not have been any clearer; it stated the defendant did not wish to speak without counsel. By handing over the letter, the defendant had ratified its contents as his own personal communication. The defendant did not dissociate himself from the contents of the letter or volunteer that he wished to be questioned regarding the criminal charges. It was irrelevant that the agent asked for the letter, as was the fact that the defendant never asserted that he agreed with the contents of the letter. Thus, the defendant's motion to suppress the statements he made, after invoking his right to counsel, was affirmed.

Protect your rights

If you are accused of a crime, it is crucial that you speak with an attorney and have an attorney present during any questioning. You should seek an experienced criminal defense attorney who will work hard to build the best possible defense for you and protect your rights under the law.