Criminal Confessions and Miranda Warnings in New Mexico

Thanks to Hollywood and TV crime dramas, almost anyone can recite the standard Miranda warning, “you have the right to remain silent…” However, fewer people understand the meaning of this constitutional right and when a defendant is entitled to its protection.

In the 2010 New Mexico Supreme Court case of State v. Wilson, the Court recently ruled on the admissibility of criminal confessions in cases where the defendant was not given Miranda warnings and his or her judgment may have been impaired.

In Stave v. Wilson, the Defendant was convicted of suffocating a two-year old foster child that lived in his home. The Defendant confessed to having killed the child in a second interview conducted at the police department several days after the incident. A day before the second interview, the Defendant voluntarily checked himself into a mental facility where he was prescribed the antipsychotic Seraquel upon checking out the next day.

Before the interview began, the interrogating detective advised Defendant that he was free to leave or terminate the interview whenever he wanted. He also advised the Defendant that he was not under arrest at this time and had no obligation to speak. Defendant asserted that he wanted to make a statement. During the videotaped interview, Defendant confessed to having smothered the victim with a blanket, reenacted the act with a doll, and wrote a handwritten confession and letter apologizing to the child‘s biological parents.

The Court affirmed Defendant‘s conviction, stating that his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were not violated by the admission of his confession into evidence at trial, despite the absence of Miranda warnings or the possibility that his judgment may have been impaired.

Miranda warnings are a vital part of due process and are encapsulated in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. If an individual is interrogated while in custody, due process dictates that any statements made during the interrogation are only admissible in court if the individual is first given Miranda warnings.

However, Miranda warnings are not always necessary for a confession to be admissible at trial under due process. According to New Mexico case law, Miranda warnings are required only when “a person is (1) interrogated while (2) in custody.” In the current case, the New Mexico Supreme Court defined “in custody” for purposes of Miranda warnings.

Following previous decisions, the Court defined “custody” as an objective determination where a court must decide whether a reasonable person being interviewed by police would believe that they are free to leave and terminate the interview. The factors a court should take into account when analyzing whether a person understood their situation include the length of the interrogation, where it took place, the nature of the evidence defendant is confronted with, etc. Applying those factors to the facts of the case, the Court found that even though the interview occurred in an interrogation room at a police station, a reasonable person in Defendant‘s position would have understood that he was free to leave at any time.

The Court also addressed Defendant‘s contention that his confession was not voluntary because he was in an impaired mental state. Under federal and New Mexico law, a confession must be voluntary to be admissible against a defendant. Absent “official coercion,” a defendant‘s impaired mental state is not sufficient to make a confession involuntary.

Applying this standard to the case, the Court found that despite the interrogating officer‘s general knowledge that Defendant had been admitted into a mental facility, the Defendant was acting normal and all facts pointed to the general opinion that Defendant‘s mental state was improving. The Court found no element of coercion on the interrogator‘s part, and held that even if Defendant‘s judgment were impaired, the statement was not involuntary because the interrogator was not reasonably aware of it.

Though the outcome of the case under the facts is not partiucalrly problematic. Some of the court‘s language may prove problematic for defendants in the future. In clarifying the second prong required to trigger Miranda warnings, the New Mexico Supreme Court makes a defendant‘s individual, subjective belief that he is in custody irrelevant if it does not match up with the “objective” standard.

This position fails to take into account that most people lack sufficient knowledge of the law to be held to an objective standard. After all this will turn on whether an individual knows enough about the legal system to recognize that he or she is free to leave. Even though a reasonable person that is aware of their rights may know that they are free to leave, a reasonable person who is unaware of this right may not.

Perhaps more problematic for defendants, this ruling makes a confession voluntary even if the individual confessing is impaired so long as the interrogator is reasonably unaware of this fact. And how is “reasonable awareness” to be measured?

When questioned by police, keep in mind you have the right to counsel. Exercise this right. Ask to speak with a criminal defense attorney. Then, stop talking!

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