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    Custodial Interrogation – The Right to Counsel in Philadelphia Criminal Cases (May 2015 Law Update)

    PA’s Supreme Court Rules on Preemptive or Anticipatory Miranda Invocations – Not Good for Defendants

    In a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion, our state’s highest court ruled that a 17 year old defendant charged as an adult in a Philadelphia murder case could not make a preemptive invocation of the constitutional right to counsel during interrogation or questioning by law enforcement. The court was hung up on the fact that the invocation occurred 6 days before the actual interrogation occurred. Here’s a discussion of the case, Commonwealth v. Bland (May 2015).

    Related: Constitutional Rights in Philadelphia Criminal Drug & Gun Cases – The 5th Amendment (Part 1)

    Commonwealth v. Bland, May 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court

    Bland was a 17 year old Philadelphia resident who was charged with the murder of another Philadelphia resident. Bland was arrested in Florida and placed in a juvenile detention center while awaiting extradition back to Philadelphia. During this time period, his father contacted an attorney who then had Bland sign a form. That form very clearly indicated that Bland was not to be questioned without his attorney present. The attorney then sent a copy of the signed form to law enforcement in Philadelphia, including the District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide unit.

    Bland was extradited back to Philadelphia. Six days after signing the form, Bland was questioned by detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department. During questioning, he confessed to the crime and signed a written confession after consulting with his father. He was charged with murder and related crimes, including firearm possession violations.

    Bland’s lawyer sought to suppress the verbal and written confessions, citing the Miranda form. The trial court granted the lawyer’s motion and found that the signed form was a legitimate invocation of his client’s Miranda right to counsel. The court relied on language from the U.S. Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona: if an individual “indicates in any manner and at any stage of the process that he wishes to consult with an attorney before speaking, there can be no questioning” (emphasis added). The court reasoned that therefore, the interrogation, even though it was 6 days later, was illegal.

    The Commonwealth (District Attorney’s Office) appealed the case to Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, the Superior Court. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court agreed with the trial court. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

    The PA Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and trial court, finding that preemptive or anticipatory Miranda invocations are not valid. In essence, a criminal defendant may only invoke Miranda rights in close proximity to the time that custodial interrogation occurs. The court stated, “[A]n invocation of the Miranda-based right to counsel must be made upon or after actual or imminent commencement of in-custody interrogation.”

    More: Philadelphia Criminal Law in Drug Cases – PA Supreme Court Strikes Drug Sentencing Law (June 2015)

    This case makes it clear that criminal defendants, even minors, cannot invoke their constitutional right to have an attorney present prior to interrogation, unless it is done so immediately prior to the actual interrogation. It’s an unfortunate ruling, especially considering that law enforcement often uses heavy handed interrogation tactics, especially for serious crimes like murder. Such tactics can and do result in cases where an innocent person admits to a crime they didn’t commit.


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    David S. Nenner

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