Criminal Practice

Supreme Court to Examine Post-Miranda Confession

, The Legal Intelligencer



The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether a confession given after a juvenile defendant invoked his Miranda rights while in custody in another state should have been suppressed.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur in Commonwealth v. Bland on July 24.

In Bland, the Superior Court affirmed a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas decision that a statement given to police by Dennis Bland, who was charged with murder and firearm offenses in Philadelphia, should have been suppressed on the grounds that his invocation of the right to maintain silence and the right to counsel was valid. The court ruled Bland's invocation of his right to counsel was still valid, despite being made while in custody in Florida six days before he was brought to Philadelphia by authorities.

In February, the Superior Court ruled 2-1 to uphold the trial court's ruling.

According to the majority opinion by Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald III, it didn't matter if six days had passed since Bland had invoked his rights, nor that he did so in Florida.

"We agree with the trial court that, pursuant to [Edwards v. Arizona], his invocation of rights remained valid when the Philadelphia police questioned him," Fitzgerald said. "The police had acknowledged receipt of written notice that [Bland], a juvenile who was in custody for the murder charge, had invoked his right to counsel. Nevertheless, [the detective] questioned him in Philadelphia without counsel present. ... Pursuant to Edwards [and other case law], we agree that this questioning, despite Miranda warnings, was not proper."

However, in his dissent, former President Judge Correale Stevens — who was recently appointed to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by former Justice Joan Orie Melvin — said that because Bland wasn't facing interrogation while sitting in the Florida detention center, his invocation of his right to counsel via a form letter had no weight.

"During his time at the Florida detention center, moreover, [Bland]'s parents and a Florida attorney had access to him," Stevens said. "Without the compelling pressures of interrogation imminent, [Bland]'s invocation of Fifth Amendment rights was merely anticipatory of custodial interrogation and, accordingly, not a valid exercise of constitutional rights."

According to the opinion, an arrest warrant was issued for Bland on July 9, 2008. At that time, he was a juvenile. Philadelphia police learned that he was at his mother's house in Florida and, subsequently, Florida authorities took him into custody.

Bland's father contacted Philadelphia Assistant Public Defender Paul Conway the next day. On July 11, Conway faxed Bland's Florida attorney a non-waiver of rights form, which Bland signed and sent back to Conway. The form explicitly stated that Bland did not wish to waive the right to remain silent and detailed that he did not wish to speak with or be questioned by police without the presence of an attorney, according to Fitzgerald.

Conway forwarded the signed form to the Philadelphia Police Department and the chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Homicide Unit. The Police Department replied to Conway, "'Ha-ha-ha,'" Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said that after spending six days in a Florida detention center, Bland was transported to Philadelphia by Detective James Burke of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Bland was handcuffed and "at no time did Detective Burke read" the Miranda rights to him, according to Fitzgerald.

Once at the station, Detective Donald Marano spoke with Bland, mirandized him and returned with a confession, the opinion said. Marano did not speak with or explain the rights to Bland's father prior to coming into contact with him, Fitzgerald said.

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