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State v. Harris

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

April 7, 2017

State of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Brian I. Harris, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner.

          Submitted on Briefs: oral argument: October 18, 2016

         Source of Appeal: court Circuit county Kenosha Michael S. Wilk Judge.

         REVIEW of a decision of the Court of Appeals. Affirmed.

          For the defendants-appellant-petitioners, there was a brief by Kathleen M. Quinn and Kathleen M Quinn Attorney at Law, Milwaukee, and oral argument by Kathleen M. Quinn.

          For the plaintiff-respondent the cause was argued by David H. Perlman, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

          ZIEGLER, J. joined by GABLEMAN, J. concurs (opinion filed).

          ABRAHAMSON, J. dissents (opinion filed).

          DANIEL KELLY, J.

         ¶1 The question before the court is whether the State compelled Petitioner, Brian Harris, to be a witness against himself in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Wisconsin Constitution.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         ¶2 In the early morning hours of August 13, 2011, a Kenosha resident awoke to loud, metallic-sounding noises coming from an adjacent residence. When the noises persisted for several minutes, a neighbor called the police.

         ¶3 Officer Justin Niebuhr of the Kenosha Police Department responded and met with the caller. Both could hear the sound of metal clanging coming from inside the neighboring residence. Officer Niebuhr approached the front door of the supposedly-vacant residence and found it locked, and upon looking through a window saw only darkness. In the process of examining the exterior of the residence, Officer Niebuhr noticed the screen was off the unlatched kitchen window.

         ¶4 After backup arrived, Officers Niebuhr and Arturo Gonzalez entered the residence and traced the noises to the basement. Two additional officers responded to the scene and "cleared" the main and upstairs floors of the residence. Officers Niebuhr and Gonzalez went down to the basement where they found Mr. Harris secreted in a crawl space under the stairs. Strewn about him were copper piping, a flashlight with a red lens, and a duffle bag containing a saw and replacement blades, a bolt-cutter type instrument, and some crowbars. Mr. Harris' outfit included a pair of black work gloves. The officers took Mr. Harris into custody and eventually placed him in Officer Niebuhr's squad car.

         ¶5 While still in the squad car in front of the residence, Mr. Harris commenced an unprompted narrative of his criminal activities. Mr. Harris told Office Niebuhr he had been homeless for approximately seven years, he frequently went into vacant homes to sleep, and he often committed misdemeanor crimes to get items to sell. He said this was his plan for the copper piping. Neither Officer Niebuhr, nor any of the other officers present, were questioning Mr. Harris when he made these statements. Officer Niebuhr confirmed he neither said nor did anything of a threatening nature to prize out Mr. Harris' statements, nor did he promise Mr. Harris anything in exchange for them. Officer Niebuhr did not give Mr. Harris a Miranda[2]warning before he made these statements.

         ¶6 Later that morning, Detective Chad Buchanan of the Kenosha Police Department went to the Kenosha County Jail to interview Mr. Harris. He met Mr. Harris at about 9:00 a.m. in the common area, just outside the interview rooms. What occurred next is not entirely clear, but Detective Buchanan asked a question to the effect of "Would you like to give me a statement?"[3] Mr. Harris responded: "They caught me man, I got nothing else to say." Detective Buchanan did not inform Mr. Harris of his Miranda rights prior to speaking with him.

         ¶7 The State charged Mr. Harris with burglary, possession of burglarious tools, criminal damage to property, and criminal trespass, each as a repeater. Mr. Harris brought a suppression motion to prevent the State from using his "they caught me" statement at trial.[4] The circuit court found that "Detective Buchanan's intent was to ask the defendant to come to the interview rooms for an interview and . . . the question was, would you like to give a statement?" The circuit court said the expected response to this question would have been "yes, I'll give a statement or, no, I won't give a statement." Consequently, the circuit court found no violation of Mr. Harris's right to be free from self-incrimination, and so denied the suppression motion. The State used his statement at trial, following which the jury found Mr. Harris guilty on all four counts.

         ¶8 Mr. Harris timely appealed his conviction. In a published decision, the court of appeals affirmed. It noted the confusion over the precise wording of the question that preceded Mr. Harris's "they caught me" statement, but found it unimportant to the outcome. The court of appeals concluded that, whatever the exact wording, it was "not reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response; [and] thus, the communication did not constitute interrogation and Miranda warnings were not required."[5]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9 We employ a two-step process in reviewing a circuit court's denial of a motion to suppress. State v. Eason, 2001 WI 98, ¶9, 245 Wis.2d 206, 629 N.W.2d 625. First, we review the circuit court's factual findings and uphold them unless they are clearly erroneous. I_d.[6] Second, we apply constitutional principles to those facts de novo, without deference to the courts initially considering the question, but benefitting from their analyses. In re Commitment of Mark, 2006 WI 78, ¶12, 292 Wis.2d 1, 718 N.W.2d 90 ("We also review, de novo, the application of constitutional principles to established facts."); State v. Hansford, 219 Wis.2d 226, 234, 580 N.W.2d 171 (1998) ("Although we review questions of law de novo, we benefit from the analyses of the circuit court and the court of appeals . ").

         III. DISCUSSION

         ¶10 Mr. Harris presents a single question for our consideration: Whether the State compelled him to be a witness against himself by using his answer to Detective Buchanan's question at trial.[7] A simple question like "Would you like to give me a statement?" may seem an unlikely candidate for a constitutional violation, but as our analysis here demonstrates, we are unstinting in our protection of criminal defendants' rights.

         ¶11 There is history behind the protection against self-incrimination, history that reminds us of why that barrier is so important. It is born of experience, and responds to the dangers inherent in the inquisitorial method of questioning suspects:

The maxim 'Nemo tenetur seipsum accusare, ' [8] had its origin in a protest against the inquisitorial and manifestly unjust methods of interrogating accused persons, which [have] long obtained in the continental system, and, until the expulsion of the Stuarts from the British throne in 1688, and the erection of additional barriers for the protection of the people against the exercise of arbitrary power, [were] not uncommon even in England. While the admissions or confessions of the prisoner, when voluntarily and freely made, have always ranked high in the scale of incriminating evidence, if an accused person be asked to explain his apparent connection with a crime under investigation, the ease with which the questions put to him may assume an inquisitorial character, the temptation to press the witness unduly, to browbeat him if he be timid or reluctant, to push him into a corner, and to entrap him into fatal contradictions, which is so painfully evident in many of the earlier state trials, . . . made the system so odious as to give rise to a demand for its total abolition.

Brown v. Walker, 161 U.S. 591, 596-97 (1896) .[9] The ease with which innocent questions can become inquisitorial requires that this protection apply to criminal suspects whether they are inside or outside of the courtroom: "[T]he privilege against self-incrimination protects individuals not only from legal compulsion to testify in a criminal courtroom but also from 'informal compulsion exerted by law-enforcement officers during in-custody questioning.'" Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582, 589 (1990) (quoting Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 461 (1966)) . Thus, our constitutional protection against self- incrimination is called to duty whenever the State interrogates a suspect in police custody. See Miranda, 384 U.S. 436; see also State v. Armstrong, 223 Wis.2d 331, ¶29, 588 N.W.2d 606');">588 N.W.2d 606 (1999) .

         ¶12 This freedom from compelled self-incrimination is one of the nation's "most cherished principles." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 458. We are sufficiently solicitous of this protection that we guard it by patrolling a generous buffer zone around the central prohibition.

         A. Procedural Requirements

         ¶13 The most important aspect of that buffer is the right to remain silent while in police custody. We actualize the right by requiring the State's agents, before conducting an in-custody interrogation, to formally instruct the suspect of his constitutional rights and then conduct themselves according to how he elects to preserve or waive them. Thus, a suspect must

be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Miranda, 384 U.S. at 479.

         ¶14 This procedural safeguard arose out of an understanding that custodial interrogations present a uniquely intimidating atmosphere that can interfere with a suspect's exercise of his rights: "The concern of the Court in Miranda was that the 'interrogation environment' created by the interplay of interrogation and custody would 'subjugate the individual to the will of his examiner' and thereby undermine the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination." Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 299 (1980) (quoting Miranda, 384 U.S. at 457-58) . Requiring this warning, and scrupulous adherence to the suspect's decisions thereafter, give us assurance that his decision to remain silent has not been overborne. The consequence of failing to honor this safeguard is loss of the evidence: "[U]nless and until such warnings and waiver are demonstrated by the prosecution at trial, no evidence obtained as a result of interrogation can be used against [a suspect]." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 479.

         ¶15 There is no doubt Mr. Harris was in police custody when Detective Buchanan asked whether he would like to make a statement (he was in jail), so our inquiry focuses on whether that question qualifies as an interrogation. As we discuss below, custodial interrogation can take the form of either express questioning or its functional equivalent.[10] We will analyze Detective Buchanan's question and Mr. Harris' response under each rubric. If either analysis reveals the question to be an interrogation, then we must suppress Mr. Harris' response because it was not preceded by a Miranda warning.

         B. Express Questioning

         ¶16 "Express questioning" does not encompass every inquiry directed to the suspect. It covers only those questions "designed to elicit incriminatory admissions." Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582, 602 n.14 (1990). See also Doe v. U.S., 487 U.S. 201, 211 (1988) ("Unless some attempt is made to secure a communication-written, oral or otherwise-upon which reliance is to be placed as involving [the accused's] consciousness of the facts and the operations of his mind in expressing it, the demand made upon him is not a testimonial one." (quoting J.H. Wigmore, 8 Wigmore on Evidence, § 2265 (4th ed. 1988))) .

         ¶17 It is the nature of the information the question is trying to reach, therefore, that determines whether it is inquisitorial. If that information has no potential to incriminate the suspect, the question requires no Miranda warnings. I_d. at 211 n.10 ("In order to be privileged, it is not enough that the compelled communication is sought for its content. The content itself must have testimonial significance.").

         ¶18 Detective Buchanan's question did not constitute express questioning because it sought nothing that could be potentially incriminating. Although his question was certainly designed to obtain a response, the only information it sought was whether Mr. Harris would like to make a statement; it did not seek the statement itself. The response to such a question is either "yes" or "no, " and neither would have any testimonial significance whatsoever. Thus, Detective Buchanan's question did not constitute "express questioning" because the constitutional privilege applies only to the search for incriminating evidence.

         C. Functional Equivalence

         ¶19 There are more ways than one to obtain incriminating evidence from a suspect. Miranda addressed itself to the most obvious-express questioning. But there are techniques of persuasion that, in a custodial setting, can create the same potential for self-incrimination even in the absence of an express question. So the Innis Court expanded the prophylactic buffer by applying Miranda's procedural safeguards to the "functional equivalent" of an interrogation. Innis, 446 U.S. at 300-01. Such an equivalent includes "any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect." Id. at 301.

         ¶20 The test for determining what words or behavior might constitute the functional equivalent of an interrogation is not as straightforward as it first appears. The test (as stated above) inquires into what the police officer should know, implying the test might be conducted from his perspective. However, Innis requires that we account for the suspect's perception of events for the specific purpose of broadening the buffer: "This focus reflects the fact that the Miranda safeguards were designed to vest a suspect in custody with an added measure of protection against coercive police practices, without regard to objective proof of the underlying intent of the police." Id.

         ¶21 This means that, even where an officer's action had a purpose other than interrogation, the action "must be viewed from the suspect's perspective to determine whether such conduct was reasonably likely to elicit a response." State v. Cunningham, 144 Wis.2d 272, 280, 423 N.W.2d 862');">423 N.W.2d 862 (1988) . Further, Innis noted that the police may need to be mindful of the ease with which a given suspect might be persuaded to make an incriminating statement: "Any knowledge the police may have had concerning the unusual susceptibility of a defendant to a particular form of persuasion might be an important factor in determining whether the police should have known that their words or actions were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect." Innis, 446 U.S. at 302 n.8.

         ¶22 In Wisconsin, we implement the "functional equivalency" standard by positing a reasonable third-person observer and inquiring into how such a person would expect the suspect to react to the officer's words and actions:

[I]f an objective observer (with the same knowledge of the suspect as the police officer) could, on the sole basis of hearing the officer's remarks or observing the officer's conduct, conclude that the officer's conduct or words would be likely to elicit an incriminating response, that is, could reasonably have had the force of a question on the suspect, then the conduct or words would constitute interrogation.

Cunningham, 144 Wis.2d at 278-79. This test is objective with respect to each of the participants in the interaction. That is to say, we do not consider what any of the participants actually intended or understood. We consider only what the objective third-party observer would conclude from the available information.

         ¶23 In determining whether Detective Buchanan's dialogue with Mr. Harris is the functional equivalent of an interrogation, we consider more than just the bare words with which he formed his question. We must reconstruct-as near to verisimilitude as possible-the entire context within which the dialogue took place. Then, as described above, we ask whether a reasonable observer would conclude that the suspect in the vignette would understand the officer's words and actions as reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.

         ¶24 Here is what we know about the circumstances in which Detective Buchanan had his brief conversation with Mr. Harris. In the very early hours of a morning in 2011, the police found Mr. Harris secreted away in the basement of a house in which he did not belong, with copper piping and burglarious tools arrayed about him. After taking him into custody, he was placed in the back seat of Officer Niebuhr's patrol car, whereupon he commenced divulging a great deal of information, much of it incriminating. For example, he said he had been homeless for seven years and frequently sleeps in vacant houses. He also said he often commits misdemeanor crimes to obtain things to sell "to get by, " and that is what he intended to do with the copper piping.

         ¶25 Mr. Harris offered all of this information without prompting. Officer Niebuhr made no threats or promises to obtain the statements, and in fact asked no questions of Mr. Harris at all (while he was in the patrol car) before he provided this information. Officer Niebuhr said Mr. Harris did not appear to be intoxicated, overly tired, or otherwise not in control of his faculties. He also appeared to be clean and decently attired.

         ¶26 The police then transported Mr. Harris to the Kenosha County Jail. Later in the morning, at about 9:00 a.m., Detective Buchanan (who had not been present for Mr. Harris' arrest), went to the jail to interview him. A guard brought Mr. Harris (who was not handcuffed) to the main floor of the jail. Detective Buchanan met him in a common area just outside the interview rooms. He did not smell alcohol on Mr. Harris or observe any behavior that would indicate he was intoxicated. Detective Buchanan then asked Mr. Harris the question at issue in this case.

         ¶27 As all such scenarios must be, this vignette is fact-bound, which does not make it especially amenable to fixed rules of interpretation. However, past cases help sketch the boundary between "functional equivalents of interrogation" and constitutionally-innocent questions and acts. We collected a sampling of such cases in State v. Hambly, 2008 WI 10, 307 Wis.2d 98, 745 N.W.2d 48, some of which we address below.

         ¶28 Our evaluation of Detective Buchanan's question accounts for the following principles useful in identifying the "functional equivalent" of an interrogation. As we consider and apply those principles, we keep firmly in mind that the ultimate purpose of our analysis is to protect against coerced confessions by respecting a suspect's decision to remain silent: "In deciding whether particular police conduct is interrogation, we must remember the purpose behind our decisions in Miranda and Edwards [v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981)]: preventing government officials from using the coercive nature of confinement to extract confessions that would not be given in an unrestrained environment." Arizona v. Mauro, 481 U.S. 520, 529-30 (1987). Although the effect of that coercion may differ from suspect to suspect, a specific individual's special susceptibility enters the equation only if the State's agents should know of it. See, e.g., Innis, 446 U.S. at 303 n.10 (the "subtle compulsion" associated with an unknowing appeal to the suspect's conscience is not an interrogation).

         ¶29 From our cases addressing police statements made to a suspect, as opposed to questions asked of him, we confirm that our primary point of focus is on the reasonably likely effect of the officer's words on the suspect, not their grammatical format. Seemingly innocuous statements, when freighted with subtext or inquisitorial design, can become an interrogation. Thus, a dialogue with a suspect can constitute an interrogation even when law enforcement officers ask no questions. Hambly, 307 Wis.2d 98, ¶46 ("A law enforcement officer may thus be viewed as interrogating a suspect by a statement, without asking a single question, if the law enforcement officer's conduct or speech could have had the force of a question on the suspect.").

         ¶30 However, to rise to the level of an interrogation, the officer's statements (or, in this case, question) must exert a compulsive force on the suspect: "Interrogation must reflect a measure of compulsion above and beyond that inherent in custody itself." Id. (quoting Innis, 446 U.S. at 300) (internal marks omitted). For example, an officer's cryptic comment about information only the perpetrator of the crime would recognize may be considered functionally equivalent to an interrogation because of the effect the comment causes. State v. Bond, 2000 WI.App. 118, 237 Wis.2d 633, 614 N.W.2d 552. Similarly, giving unresponsive answers to questions posed by a suspect with the intent of provoking an incriminating response, and using interrogation techniques during the conversation, can serve as the functional equivalent of an interrogation. Hambly, 307 Wis.2d 98, ¶¶63-65 (citing Hill v. United States, 858 A.2d 435 (D.C. Ct. App. 2004) (finding that an officer telling a suspect that "he told us what happened" was unresponsive to the defendant's question regarding another person in custody and, when coupled with other common interrogation techniques designed to elicit a response, met the functional equivalency test)).

         ¶31 But police interactions with a suspect do not amount to interrogations so long as they are not reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. That is why law enforcement officials may make context-appropriate, and accurate, comments to a suspect without running afoul of Miranda and Innis. They can, for example, provide information responsive to questions posed by defendants. Hambly, 307 Wis.2d 98, ¶¶65-66 (finding no functional equivalence where defendant made an incriminating statement after the police officer, prior to giving him the Miranda warnings, informed the defendant of why he was under arrest). Similarly, if a suspect volunteers incriminating information following an officer's non-leading, direct responses to the suspect's questions about possible charges against him, there has been no functional equivalent of an interrogation. State v. Fischer, 2003 WI.App. 5, 259 Wis.2d 799, 656 N.W.2d 503');">656 N.W.2d 503 (finding that "an objective observer would not, on the sole basis of hearing [defendant's] words and observing his conduct, conclude that [an officer's] answers to [defendant's] direct questions about the evidence against him would be likely to elicit an incriminating response . . . .") . Nor ...


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