Putting Police Interviews on the Hot Seat

Recent news coverage has increased public concern over the police’s treatment of suspects, witnesses, and bystanders. Family members of individuals with special needs may fear that their loved one’s special needs will put him or her at increased risk in an encounter with police or the legal system. Concern is merited. In some situations, special needs are not taken into consideration.

A Massachusetts case illustrates one situation where family members can be proactive in helping their loved one interact with police: police interviews. In Commonwealth v. Bermudez, a seventeen-year-old defendant with special needs came to a police station with his mother, at the police’s request. 83 Mass. App. Ct. 46 (2012). He was interviewed for seventy minutes at the police station, unrestrained. His mother did not accompany him into the interview room, but waited in an outer lobby area. During the interview the defendant read and signed a waiver of Miranda rights. He was assured that he could go home with his mother, and he did. However, he was later charged with firearm offenses and as an accessory before the fact.

The trial court judge held that the defendant’s police interview was a custodial interrogation, and that given “the defendant’s young age, limited education and intellectual abilities,” the Commonwealth failed to establish that his waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Id. at 47.

The Appeals Court reversed, finding that the interview was not custodial. The court emphasized that the defendant appeared there voluntarily, with his mother, and was repeatedly told that he could return home with his mother. He was unrestrained, and the “questioning was conversational and nonthreatening in tone.” Id. at 52-53.

The court declined to consider his mental capacity, stating that the special needs or disabilities of a defendant are irrelevant in a police custody determination: while “the defendant’s age is a factor in the custody determination, we disagree that other individualized factors peculiar to the defendant, such as his status as a special needs student, bear on that determination.” Id. at 53-54 (citing J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394, 2402 (2011)). However, “individualized factors remain applicable in determining the voluntariness of a Miranda waiver, and of the statements themselves.” Bermudez, 83 Mass. App. Ct. at 53 n.11. The court looked only at whether a “reasonable person” of his age would perceive his or her freedom to leave— even though special needs can affect one’s ability to perceive the degree of police control being exerted.

Since the interview was not custodial, no waiver of Miranda rights was required. The defendant’s statements to the police interviewers could be used against him.

Individuals’ legal rights are complicated, and can be even more complicated when special needs are involved. If you have questions about your legal rights, or how you can help a friend or loved one, call the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C.

The purpose of this article is to inform our clients of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or to assume a client relationship. The content of this article could be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Copyright © 2012 Hutchins Law, P.C. All Rights Reserved.