Thursday, May 15, 2014

Promises by Law Enforcement for Leniency Leads to a Remand for Evidentiary Hearing.

State v. Carl Hreha, New Jersey Supreme Court, decided May 15, 2014.

Defendant, Carl Hreha, asserted that he waived his Miranda rights and confessed to a crime because the arresting State Police detectives had made promises of leniency to him, thus making his confession not knowingly or voluntary.

Specifically, the officers had promised lenient treatment in exchange for his confession. It was alleged that promises had included that he would not be handcuffed when he was removed from the Hughes Justice Complex, would not be jailed for the week-end, would be admitted to PTI, and would not lose his job with the Attorney General’s Office.

Under New Jersey law, promises of leniency are not per se unlawful, and do not render a subsequent confession involuntary, but such promises under the totality of the circumstances may render such a confession involuntary, and hence, inadmissible.  In other words, based on the promises made, and other factors, the trial court can determine that the confession was not knowingly and voluntary.

It is well settled however, that before any suspect under custody can be questioned, that the suspect be advised of his Miranda Rights.  However, once a defendant has been so advised, the defendant may waive his or her Miranda rights and confess, but that waiver must be “voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.”

In New Jersey, the State shoulders the burden of proving
beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant’s confession was
actually volunteered and that the police did not overbear
the will of the defendant. See, State v. Galloway, 133
N.J. 631, 654 (1993). Determining whether the State has met that burden requires a court to assess “the totality of the circumstances, including both the characteristics of the defendant and the nature of the interrogation.”

Although not a bright line rule, after a 104 hearing, the trial court can conclude that a defendant’s confession was involuntary if the interrogating officers extended a promise so enticing as to induce that confession. See, State v. Fletcher, 380 N.J. Super. 80, 89 (App. Div. 2005)

In the Hreha case it was determined that the trial court improperly gave undue weight to the credibility of the detective and mis-characterized the testimony of the State police detective.

The Supreme Court took issue with the fact that the trial court mis-characterized the testimony provided by the detective.   The trial court determined that the detective’s testimony directly contradicted defendant’s version of events, and the trial court chose to credit the detective’s testimony over defendant. However, the detective only testimony regarding such promises was provided in response to questions by defense counsel during cross-examination. Instead of denying that the officers had extended any such promises, he merely asserted that he could not recollect whether any promises had been made.

Further, the Supreme Court took issue with the trial court explained that defendant’s audio-recorded statement included no mention of any promises of leniency, and defendant denied being subjected to coercion or 21 threats. That statement, however, captured only eight minutes of a lengthy interrogation; defendant alleges that he was offered leniency long before he provided the recorded statement. Moreover, although defendant twice denied having been coerced or threatened, the officers did not ask whether he had been offered leniency in exchange for his confession.

Based on the foregoing the Supreme Court remanded the case back to a new judge to determine whether the facts warrant a suppression of the confession.

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New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney with 24-years experience in defending people accused of crimes in Union, Essex, Bergen, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset Passaic, Warren, Camden, Atlantic Counties.

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