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GA Court of Appeals Suppresses Defendant’s Statements to Police

June 3, 2015

In Chavez-Ortega v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, holding that the defendant was in custody when he invoked his right to remain silent, and thus his incriminating statements to the police should have been suppressed.

Cobb County Police Officers were on patrol and heard tires squealing and saw two vehicles make a fast turn despite wet road conditions. The officers initiated a traffic stop, but only one of the cars stopped. The officers then saw the defendant walking toward the traffic stop from the direction the second car had been traveling. They approached the defendant and observed that the defendant had bloodshot eyes and smelled of alcohol. Officer Taylor asked where the defendant was coming from. The defendant said that he was coming from a friend’s house, but was unable to elaborate as to where that was. At that point, Officer Taylor put the defendant in handcuffs in the back of the patrol car. He told the defendant that he was “not arrested yet” and would be “free to go” unless the officers found his car close by. At a hearing on the motion to suppress, one of the officers admitted that the defendant was detained and not free to go once he was in the patrol car.

While the defendant was in the patrol car, the officers asked him whether he had been drinking or driving. The defendant said he had been drinking, but not driving. He then told the officer “I don’t want to talk to you,” and the officer advised him of his Miranda rights. After that, police continued to question the defendant. The defendant admitted that he was drunk, but insisted that he had not been driving. When the defendant was allowed to leave the patrol car, he told the officers again that he did not want to talk to them.

The defendant moved to suppress the statements made before and after he received his Miranda rights. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the defendant was not in custody during questioning, and that his statements were made voluntarily, without coercion.

The Court of Appeals held that the statements made before the defendant received his Miranda rights should have been suppressed because the defendant was already in custody. The Georgia Supreme Court has held that “Miranda warnings are required when a person is interviewed by an investigating officer while in custody.” A person is in custody when they are formally arrested or when their freedom of movement is restrained “to the degree associated with arrest.” Georgia courts will analyze the circumstances surrounding the interrogation from the perspective of a reasonable person in the suspect’s position. Because the defendant was handcuffed and placed in the back of the patrol car, the Court held that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have considered himself to be under arrest.

The Court also stressed that a person who is subject to police questioning while in custody may invoke their right to remain silent and end the interrogation at any time. When a person clearly and unambiguously states that he wants to end police questioning, officers must immediately terminate the interrogation. In this case, however, the officers continued to question the defendant after he clearly invoked his right to remain silent. Therefore, the Court concluded that the statements made by the defendant, both before and after he was Mirandized, should have been suppressed by the trial court.

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