Friday, July 1, 2011

Where's His Lawyer?

I recently litigated a motion that I ultimately lost. It was a motion to suppress a confession, both oral and written. Nationwide, these motions are rarely granted. In order to sustain such a motion, typically some serious police misconduct has to be proven.

In Illinois, though it's a defendant's motion, it's the State that has the burden of proof at hearing. The government must prove by just a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the statement was given and taken lawfully. Most allegations in such a motion are that either the defendant's Miranda rights were violated or that the statement was not voluntarily given. 

With the burden of proof so low, it's easy to understand why these motions are seldom sustained. The State calls a detective to testify. The detective says Miranda warnings were given, there was no physical force used, defendant was allowed to use the bathroom, etc. In summary, the detective testifies that everything that took place surrounding the statement was legitimate.

But in Illinois, things can, and often do, go a step further. An Assistant State's Attorney gets involved. You might think there's nothing wrong with this. If you've ever watched Law and Order, you will often see the DA standing on the other side of a one way mirror watching an interrogation. And you will see the DA interacting with detectives, instructing them on what questions to ask, etc. After all, the DA is a lawyer. The DA knows exactly what the government needs to prove its case at trial.

I know it's only TV, but when does the DA actually go in and question a suspect who has no lawyer sitting next to him? That doesn't seem right, does it? Keep reading. 

In Chicago (and I assume the rest of the state), the county state's attorneys office has a prosecutor on call 24 hours a day for the purpose of felony review. This attorney has the sole discretion to approve felony charges against someone in police custody. They review the evidence and then decide whether it's enough. There's nothing wrong with this. 

But in many situations, the felony review attorney does a whole lot more than simply sign off on charges. They assist the police with their investigations. I also have no problem with this. However, our felony review attorneys regularly take part in interrogations of suspects in custody. And, it's actually this same attorney that prepares written confessions, which the suspect ultimately signs. It's also this same attorney who approves the felony charges against the suspect. These roles I take issue with.

The suspect is told that this attorney is an ASA and not the their lawyer. But does the suspect really understand this? Does the suspect realize this attorney is there to hang the defendant? I actually argued that this practice was equivalent to a legal lynching. Yes, I said exactly that.

The prosecutor knows exactly what needs to be contained in a confession in order to insure a guilty verdict should the case ever see trial. Thus, the questioning of the suspect is designed to elicit the most incriminating facts. In a lot of cases, the suspect really believes he is going home if he cooperates. He's been befriended by a detective and then introduced sometimes 24-36 hours later to a nice lawyer wearing a suit. The suspect has been given cigarettes to smoke and McDonalds to eat.

I think at no time does the suspect fully understand that he's being lured into an ambush. And that if he cooperates as requested, not only is he not going home, he's probably eventually going to prison. So, where is the suspect's lawyer? Good question.

Miranda speaks to the 5th Amendment right to remain silent. Usually when someone tells detectives they want a lawyer or don't want to talk, the interrogation is over. Usually.

But the crux of my argument in this case was not Miranda. It's really hard to get a judge to buy that no Miranda warnings were given. I felt the 6th Amendment right to counsel should have been triggered. I've also written about the differences between the 5th and 6th Amendments and the right to a lawyer.

The 6th Amendment right to counsel isn't triggered until the prosecution has begun or the defendant is brought into court. That seems pretty cut and dry. But I argued the involvement of the prosecutor was clearly the beginning of the prosecution. The attorney was there to get a signed confession that would hold up in court and contain facts to prove the government's case. He also approved the felony charges. That sounds to me like the beginning of the prosecution.

But the judge disagreed. He said though my argument was novel, he could find no authority to support it. And he's right. There is no controlling case that holds my client's 6th Amendment rights were triggered due to the involvement of the Assistant State's Attorney. But just because there's no case, doesn't mean I am wrong.

I argued that I couldn't think of a time when a criminal suspect had a more dire need for legal counsel, than the point at which they agree to sign a confession. A confession prepared by an Assistant State's Attorney. They simply do not understand the ramifications behind their actions. They have not been advised of this crucial information. For, as I pointed out, if there's a signed confession, it's doubtful the defendant will ever need a trial attorney.

I think the judge actually bought my argument because he said "I can find no authority today, to support your argument."

The reality is that the suspect is never told he is signing a confession. It's always referred to as a statement. I like the clever distinction there. Even a pretty ignorant person knows signing a confession probably isn't a good thing. But a statement must seem harmless. The cops are trained at getting them. "Oh Mr. Suspect, just help us. Tell us what happened and this will all be over." Is this really fair?

How many suspects would sign a confession or even give an oral statement if they were warned as follows: any statement to any police officer or any Assistant State's Attorney will more likely than not result in felony criminal charges, which will place you in the custody of the county jail for up to two to three years and then ultimately in prison for even more time.

Who that understands that, still talks or signs a confession? I don't think many.

The beginning of my proposed warning sounds pretty similar to Miranda. But I feel the understanding of the right to remain silent is trumped by the need to understand the real consequences if you talk.

"Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." I know what the last sentence means because I am a criminal lawyer. But can the average high school dropout with no GED appreciate the meaning? I think not.

The fact that statements and confessions of criminal suspects in my jurisdiction are allowed to happen as I have written, is constitutionally flagrant (said this in my argument as well). In my opinion, there are serious due process and fundamental fairness issues.

Doesn't a suspect have the right to have someone looking out for their best interest? Why is it that in way more cases than not, the only lawyer the suspect ever speaks to is there to screw him? What's even more egregious is that all written statements are prepared by the prosecutor. It's NEVER in the suspect's handwriting. It's never even the suspect's own words. It's either typed or handwritten by the ASA and contains words and language no suspect would ever use. Who speaks like this: "subsequent to arming himself with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun, Mr. Suspect carefully approached the victim from the rear and demanded money"?

The only people that talk like this are cops and lawyers. What has happened is that a prosecutor took a story from a suspect and cleaned it up so it's presentable in court. Then the suspect signs every page of the statement indicating it's his words, but it never really is. Again, this seems to be part of the prosecution. Am I the only person who feels this way?

I would love to read the opinion that the late Justice Brennan would have written if presented with this issue. This doesn't pass the sniff test, but yet goes on around me everyday.