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144983 - People v Elliott

The People of the State of Michigan,
 
Jerrold Schrotenboer
 
Plaintiff-Appellant,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Jackson – Wilson, T.)
 
Samuel Lee Elliott,
 
Linda D. Ashford
 
Defendant-Appellee.
 


Summary

​The defendant, Samuel Elliott, was arrested for violating parole after Elliott’s brother told the police that Elliott had robbed a gas station. On searching the place where Elliott was staying, the police found a hat and pullover that matched those worn by the robber, as described by the gas station cashier. Detectives went to the jail where Elliott was incarcerated and advised Elliott of his Miranda rights. Miranda v Arizona, 384 US 436; 86 S Ct 1602; 16 L Ed 2d 694 (1966). The detectives began to interrogate Elliott about the robbery; he answered several questions and denied robbing the gas station. Elliott then invoked his right to an attorney, and the interrogation ended.

 

Three days after the detectives’ visit, a parole officer went to the jail to serve parole violation charges on Elliott “and get his statement” regarding the robbery. Before meeting with Elliott, the parole officer received the police report and spoke with a detective about Elliott being a suspect in the gas station robbery. A deputy escorted Elliott from his cell to the jail library, where the parole officer served him with the parole violation charges and interviewed him, but without reading Elliott his Miranda rights. According to the parole officer, Elliott admitted to robbing the gas station during their interview; afterwards, the parole officer called the detective and told him that Elliott had confessed to the robbery.

 

Elliott was charged with armed robbery. On the first day of trial, but before jury selection, Elliott’s attorney moved to suppress the statements that Elliott had made to the parole officer, arguing that his confession could not come into evidence because the parole officer had failed to give Elliott a Miranda warning.

 

But the trial court disagreed and ruled that Elliott’s statements to the parole officer were admissible. The judge observed that the Miranda issue was “very unclear from the precedent that’s out there.” The judge looked to People v Littlejohn (unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued September 11, 1998, Docket No. 195286). Although Littlejohn is not a published decision – and hence is not binding precedent on trial courts and future Court of Appeals panels – the case addressed the question of whether a parole officer is “a law enforcement official” for purposes of Miranda, the judge said. In Littlejohn, the Court of Appeals ruled that a parole officer was not acting as a law enforcement official because the officer was not acting in concert with law enforcement, and because the parole officer’s purpose was to advise the defendant about his parole violation charges.

 

Similarly, in Elliott’s case, testimony by the parole officer and detective indicated that the parole officer was not acting in concert with the police and was not a law enforcement officer for Miranda purposes, the trial judge said. “She was there to advise [defendant] of the charges. The information she obtained previously [from the detective] was to understand what was going on so that she could advise [defendant] of the parole violation charges.”

 

The parole officer testified at trial that Elliott confessed to committing the armed robbery. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced, as a fourth-offense habitual offender, to 15 to 30 years’ imprisonment. The trial court later amended the sentence, indicating that Elliott’s sentence was to run consecutively to his preexisting sentences related to the parole violations.

 

Elliott appealed, and in a published opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and ordered a new trial.

 

Miranda applies when a criminal defendant is subjected to a “custodial interrogation,” defined as “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way,” the Court of Appeals explained.

 

“When determining whether a defendant was ‘in custody,’ courts consider both whether a reasonable person in the defendant’s situation would believe that he or she was free to leave and ‘whether the relevant environment present[ed] the same inherently coercive pressures as the type of station house questioning at issue in Miranda,’” the appellate panel said, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Howes v Fields, 565 US ___; 132 S Ct 1181, 1189-1190; 182 L Ed 2d 17 (2012). “Interrogation refers to express questioning and to any words or actions on the part of police that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the subject.” And, once Elliott invoked his right to counsel, law enforcement officers could not question him any further without his attorney being present. “In Edwards v Arizona, 451 US 477, 484; 101 S Ct 1880; 68 L Ed 2d 378 (1981), the United States Supreme Court established the bright-line rule that an accused, having expressed a desire to deal with the police only through counsel, may not be subject to further interrogation by the authorities until counsel has been made available unless the accused initiates further communication.”

 

The parole officer’s questioning of Elliott amounted to a “custodial interrogation,” the Court of Appeals concluded. Like the defendants in Miranda, he was in the “inherently coercive” situation of being accused of a crime and questioned while in jail; he was also without an attorney, despite his request for one. A reasonable person in that situation would believe that he or she was not free to leave; hence, Elliott was in custody when the parole officer questioned him. Moreover, the parole officer’s questioning “constituted an interrogation because her questions were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from [Elliott],” the panel reasoned.

 

The Court of Appeals next turned to the question of whether the parole officer was a “law enforcement officer” for the purposes of Miranda’s constitutional safeguards. The U.S. Supreme Court’s post-Miranda decisions “illustrate that Miranda is not limited to custodial interrogation performed by law enforcement officers who are police officers,” the panel noted. “Moreover, this Court has held that Miranda safeguards apply to a person who is ‘acting in concert with or at the request of the police.’”

 

Based on the trial court record, “the trial court did not clearly err when it determined that [the parole officer] did not act in concert with or at the request of the police,” the appellate panel said. “Nothing in the record indicates that [the parole officer] interviewed defendant at the request of the police or in collaboration with their investigation.”

 

But, the Court of Appeals said, “the question remains whether [the parole officer] was a law enforcement officer under Miranda as a matter of law given her status as a parole officer and therefore precluded from interrogating defendant after he invoked his right to counsel.” Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Michigan Supreme Court has specifically addressed the issue, and the Court of Appeals has only done so in unpublished decisions, the panel said.

 

The Court of Appeals compared Elliott’s case to the earlier Court of Appeals decisions in Littlejohn and People v Stokes (unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued July 17, 2007, Docket No. 269345, lv den 480 Mich 991 (2007)). In both cases, the Court of Appeals concluded that parole officers who interviewed the defendants were not law enforcement officers for purposes of Miranda rights. However, those unpublished decisions are not binding precedent, and they also “conflict with various federal circuits that have addressed the application of Miranda to parole and probation officers,” as well as decisions from other state appellate courts holding that Miranda applies to parole and probation officers. These decisions from other federal circuits and states provide “the better rule,” the Court of Appeals stated.

 

“The rationale for the suppression of statements elicited during a custodial interrogation by a law enforcement officer who does not adhere to Miranda is to ‘combat’ the ‘inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely,’” said the panel, citing Miranda. The “unique relationship” between a parole officer and parolee presents such “inherently compelling pressures,” in part because it “often becomes a relationship of trust and confidence.” Hence, a parole officer is more likely than a police officer to get a parolee to confide and make incriminating statements, the Court of Appeals observed. At the same time, the parolee-parole officer is “adversarial,” in that the parole officer is the agent of the state, the panel said.

 

Because of the “heavy psychological pressure on a parolee to respond to a parole officer’s questions” that the parolee would not otherwise answer freely, “we hold that a parole officer is a law enforcement officer for purposes of Miranda,” the Court of Appeals declared. “Statements made by a parolee to a parole officer during a custodial interrogation are inadmissible in a subsequent trial if the parolee invoked the right to counsel before questioning. Therefore, we conclude that the statements defendant made to [the parole officer] while he was in custody were inadmissible at trial and that the trial court erred by denying defendant’s motion to suppress.”

 

Reversal was required because the trial court’s error was not harmless, the appellate panel added. The gas station cashier was not able to identify Elliott as the robber; although there was other evidence that Elliott had robbed the gas station, there was a “reasonable possibility” that Elliott’s statements to the parole officer “might have contributed to the conviction.” The appellate panel noted that, although Elliott’s brother had testified against him, Elliott’s attorney introduced evidence of the brother’s prior convictions to impeach him and also suggested that the brother committed the robbery. Too, the prosecution referred to the parole officer’s testimony in both opening and closing statements. “The prosecutor’s statements underscore the importance of defendant’s incriminating statements in the prosecution’s case and demonstrate a reasonable possibility that defendant’s incriminating statements might have contributed to his conviction.”

 

The prosecution appealed, and, in an order dated June 20, 2012, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. The Court ordered, “The parties shall address whether, and, in light of Howes v Fields, 565 US ___; 132 S Ct 1181; 182 L Ed 2d 17 (2012), under what custodial circumstances, a parole officer not acting in concert with police is required to provide the warnings prescribed by Miranda v Arizona, 384 US 436; 86 S Ct 1602; 16 L Ed 2d 694 (1966), before questioning an in-custody parolee who, during police questioning, has previously invoked his right to counsel under Edwards v Arizona, 451 US 477; 101 S Ct 1880; 68 L Ed 2d 378 (1981), about an offense giving rise to an alleged parole violation, if the parole officer’s testimony concerning the parolee’s responses to such questioning is to be admissible at the trial for that offense.”