Supreme Court to examine post-Miranda confession

Judges will debate whether invoked rights remain valid across state borders

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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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bland, now an adult, 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," Judge 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," Judge 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 the Mr. Bland on July 9, 2008. At that time, he was a juvenile -- 17 years old, and 11 months. Philadelphia police learned that he was at his mother's house in Florida and, subsequently, Florida authorities took him into custody.

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

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

Mr. Bland eventually gave a formal statement to police.

On Jan. 12, 2010, Mr. Bland filed an omnibus motion to suppress the statement he gave to police, after which the trial court concluded that when Mr. Bland was in custody and under arrest in Florida for the murder in Philadelphia, he asserted his right to remain silent and, therefore, Philadelphia detectives should not have interrogated him without the presence of his counsel.

Judge Fitzgerald went on to reiterate that the passage of six days -- which in this case was attributed to Bland's arrest in Florida and transport rules for juveniles -- and the geographic distance didn't alter the validity of the invocation of Bland's rights.

In his dissent, Judge Stevens said the majority was focused solely on custody and not interrogation.

"Taking the 'interrogation' out of the recognized Miranda right to counsel, triggering the event of 'custodial interrogation,' the learned majority holds that one validly invokes a Fifth Amendment right to counsel so long as one is in custody, regardless of whether interrogation has begun or is imminent," he said.

Judge Stevens went on to say that while he agrees being in custody is a necessary condition, it must be paired with the imminence of interrogation for the invocation of Miranda to be considered valid.

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P.J. D'Annunzio: pdannunzio@alm.com or 215-557-2315. Read more articles like this at www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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