Lessons for Police in the Miranda Warnings Context, From Chief Justice Rabner

State v. O.D.A.-C., ___N.J. ___ (2022). Everyone knows, even if only from watching police procedurals on television, about the warnings that Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), requires police to give criminal suspects before questioning them. This unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Rabner on appeal as of right due to a dissent in the Appellate Division, addressed particular ways in which detectives had conducted an interrogation and concluded that the Appellate Division majority correctly suppressed the defendant’s statements made in that interrogation.

At the start of the interview with defendant, a detective read the Miranda warnings from a form, but stated that his doing so was “[j]ust a formality.” Defendant then initialed each right on the form and signed beneath a paragraph regarding waiver of his rights.

The case was about the alleged improper touching of a minor on a number of occasions. The detectives questioned defendant about the number of times that such touchings occurred. When defendant showed hesitation to respond, the detectives encouraged him, saying “what we talk about in here is between us” and that “it’s confidential between us.”

Defendant then referred to the Miranda warnings that he had signed, saying “when you make me write that, it say that anything that I say, it goes against my, you know.” The detective said “That”s just a formality, that’s what it is.” Defendant continued to demur, saying “it’s gonna work against me,” and the detective pressed, saying “[W]hatever you’re saying here, it may be hard to believe that it’s not going to work against you, your cooperation is paramount.” Yet again, defendant expressed reservations, and the detective reiterated “Anything you say, like I said, is only going to help you, it’s not going to hurt you.” Shortly after, defendant said that if he could have a lawyer present, “then it would be a different story.” The interview ended at that point.

Chief Justice Rabner made clear that what the detectives had done and said should not be done or said. Quoting prior Supreme Court and Appellate Division decisions, he noted that “[a] police officer cannot directly contradict, out of one side of his mouth, the Miranda warnings just given out of the other.” Statements that the warnings were just a “formality,” that what defendant said would remain “confidential,” would not be used against defendant, and “could not hurt” but “could only help” defendant all were improper. Chief Justice Rabner cited cases from other jurisdictions that had reached that same conclusion.

The Court “decline[d] to adopt a bright-line rule that would require suppression any time an officer makes an improper comment during an interrogation.” But here “the number and significance of the detective’s misleading statements undermined the Miranda warnings and, by extension, the voluntariness of defendant’s waiver.” The validity of that waiver was a legal question, as to which the trial court’s ruling did not bind appellate courts. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision to suppress defendant’s statements and remanded for further proceedings.