NJ Supreme Court further analyzes in-custody for the purposes of Miranda

Professional Development

By Ed Esposito 

In mid-June, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion in State v. Zakariyya Ahmad, which sets forth more context to the “in-custody” status of a person who is questioned by the police for the purposes of Miranda.

Our courts have long recognized that individuals who are “subjected to police interrogation while in custody . . . or otherwise deprived of [their] freedom of action in any significant way” must be advised of certain rights so as to not offend the right against self-incrimination. Miranda v. Arizona at 477-79. In short, the Miranda warnings are required when the police are going to interrogate someone who is in their custody. However, what “in custody” means for the purposes of Miranda can be confusing since there are so many variables when a subject is not actually placed under arrest prior to being questioned by the police.

As a general rule with respect to Miranda, custody begins when police conduct constitutes the functional equivalent of a formal arrest based on an objective assessment of the totality of the circumstances. It is not the subjective intent of an officer that determines if a person is considered to be in custody. Instead, courts take into consideration factors that make up the “totality of circumstances,” which include but are not limited to: the officer’s articulated intent, the time of the interrogation, the place of the interrogation, the length of the interrogation, the nature of the questions, the conduct of the police, the status of the interrogator and the suspect’s status. In-custody for the purposes of Miranda must also include consideration of a person’s age and other factors when a  juvenile is being questioned by the police.

In the most recent case, State v. Zakariyya Ahmad, the defendant became a person with whom the police wanted to speak after they learned he was shot a few blocks away from where the owner of a local cafe had been shot and killed in an apparent robbery attempt. The defendant, who had recently turned 17, was initially interviewed by the police in the emergency room about where he was shot and how he got to the hospital. Over the next few hours, the defendant received treatment, and during that time, members of his family arrived at the emergency room, including his mother and father. When the defendant was discharged from the hospital, he was told by the police that he had to report to their station and that he could not go home.

Officers then escorted the defendant from the hospital to a marked police car, where he was placed in a back seat and driven to the station. The defendant’s parents arrived at the station their son had been transported to. At the station, one of the investigators from the cafe homicide met the defendant and his father. Eventually, the investigator told the defendant and his father to drive to the county prosecutor’s office for further questioning. The defendant was transported by his father, and the two were escorted by the investigator.

After the defendant arrived at the prosecutor’s office, he was seated in an interview room apart from his parents. At that time, the defendant was told that the interview was being recorded, but he was not advised of his Miranda rights. According to the investigator, he did not suspect the defendant of killing the cafe owner or robbing the cafe at that time. During an interview that lasted 27 minutes, the defendant narrated his version of the events to the investigator. The defendant’s mother testified that she asked for the interview to cease because she saw an officer enter the interview room holding what she believed to be a forensic kit.

The investigator later matched the bullet removed from the defendant’s ankle and blood swabbed from the defendant’s pants to physical evidence found at the cafe. According to the investigator, it was at that point that the defendant became a suspect in the homicide. Further evidence was obtained, which included statements and surveillance footage from the morning of the homicide. The investigation ultimately revealed that the defendant was inadvertently shot during the course of an attempted robbery at the cafe. The defendant was indicted, and a pretrial evidentiary hearing was held to address the State’s motion to admit the defendant’s videotaped statement at trial. The court granted the motion, finding that the defendant was interrogated as a shooting victim, not a suspect.

However, on appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the lower court’s decision, and remanded the matter for a new trial.

The Court in this case stated: “[The] [d]efendant was a minor, still in high school. He suffered the significant trauma of being shot multiple times. Immediately upon release from the hospital, he was placed in the back of a patrol car — where arrestees are normally held — and taken to the police station. We doubt there are many, if any, reasonable 17-year-olds who would think they were free to leave after such events. Accordingly, our decision today simply honors the long-held standard of whether a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have believed they were free to leave. Based on the totality of those circumstances, we find that defendant was in custody at the time he provided his statement. And because defendant was not advised of his constitutional rights prior to giving his statement, the statement should have been suppressed.” State v. Zakariyya Ahmad at p. 27 (emphasis added).