Miranda Rights; Suppression of Evidence; “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”
Police received information that Defendant Lukach was involved in a murder and had previously been involved in crime at the murder victim’s home. During the course of the murder investigation, Defendant was arrested on two outstanding warrants, and was brought in for questioning related to the murder. At this time, the Defendant was informed of his Miranda rights, and he acknowledged he understood them.
Approximately twenty minutes after the interrogation began, Defendant stated “I don’t know, just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The police chief responded, “[y]ou don’t have to say anything, I told you that you could stop.” During questioning, police confiscated Defendant’s shoes, and continued to interrogate the Defendant until he requested to speak to the District Attorney to discuss a possible “deal.”
When the DA arrived, Defendant was again read his Miranda rights before providing a detailed confession of his involvement in the murder. Based on Defendant’s statement, police located personal effects of the victim in a storm drain, including the victim’s credit card, which allowed police to obtain video surveillance evidence of Defendant accessing an ATM on the morning the murder took place.
Based on his statement and the resulting evidence, Defendant was charged with murder. Prior to trial, Defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress statements made to police after he stated “I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about” in addition to evidence recovered as a result of Defendant’s statements and the shoes confiscated during questioning.
At the suppression hearing, the police chief testified that he did not interpret Defendant’s statements as an immediate invocation of the right to remain silent and wanted to “be absolutely certain that [Defendant] was still aware of that right.” Police further testified that certain evidence could have been located absent Defendant’s statement.
After hearing, the trial court ruled in favor of suppression of (1) statements made by Defendant following his assertion that he was done talking; (2) Defendant’s shoes and any evidence obtained from them; and (3) the items recovered from the storm drain. However, the court admitted all statements made prior to Appellee’s assertion that he was done talking and surveillance video from the ATM.
The Commonwealth appealed, raising three issues for the Superior Court’s review:
- Did the suppression court err in finding that the Defendant made a clear and unambiguous assertion of his right to remain silent during police questioning?
- Did the suppression court err in finding that the police violated Defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and thus err in suppressing incriminating statements made to police?
- Did the suppression court err in suppressing certain physical evidence (credit card, hat, shirt, and sunglasses) as fruit of the poisonous tree?
As to the first issue, the Superior Court found that Defendant’s statement that he was “done talking” was a clear and unequivocal invocation of his right to remain silent because it was “the sort of statement that would lead a reasonable police officer, in those circumstances, to understand the statement to be a request to remain silent.” Therefore, the court concluded, the continued questioning of Defendant violated his right to remain silent when defendant did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights.
Next, looking to the surrounding circumstances of Defendant’s statement that he was “done talking”, the Superior Court found that police failed to “scrupulously honor” Defendant’s right to remain silent. The Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that Defendant waived his Miranda rights and cured the “fruit of the poisonous tree” issue when Defendant was read his Miranda rights a second time prior to speaking with the DA.
In considering whether the original taint caused by the police’s wrongful interrogation was sufficiently purged, the court inquired into “(1) whether Miranda warnings were again administered; (2) the ‘temporal proximity’ of the illegal police conduct to the confession; (3) the presence of intervening circumstances or events; and (4) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.”
The Superior Court addressed the illegal conduct of the police, again noting the police failed to “scrupulously honor” Defendant’s request to remain silent. Next, the court noted the “temporal proximity” of the improper police conduct to the confession – the twenty minutes between the end of the improper questioning and the second Miranda reading. Based on these facts, “due to the coercive nature of the circumstances and the impact of the continuous period of questioning, [Defendant] did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights.”
Finally, the Superior Court found that evidence was properly suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree” when obtained through Defendant’s inculpatory statements not voluntarily made, and when the Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence that the suppressed evidence would have been discovered absent Defendant’s statement.
Accordingly, the Superior Court held that the trial court properly suppressed Defendant’s statements and evidence recovered as a result.
The Supreme Court issued an order granting allocatur to determine the issues as stated by the petitioner:
- As a matter of first impression, did the Pennsylvania Superior Court err in holding that a suspect that is subject to custodial interrogation clearly and unambiguously invokes his right to remain silent under the standard articulated in Berghuis v. Thompkins, 130 S.Ct. 2250 (2010), where he makes a statement that he does not wish to talk, but, qualifies that statement with a statement of “I don’t know” and a general assertion of innocence?
- Did the Pennsylvania Superior Court commit an error of law when it applied the wrong legal standard in affirming suppression of the physical evidence found as the “fruits” of [r]espondent’s confession where there was only a violation of the prophylactic rules of Miranda and the confession was not a product of coercion?