Asking for a Lawyer During Questioning in NJ
Why It’s Important to Ask for a Lawyer During Police Questioning or Interrogation in New Jersey
A recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court highlights the importance of asserting your rights to an attorney when asked questions in police custody. Once you do, you preserve your right not to answer questions or incriminate yourself. That assertion may make the difference between an acquittal or guilty verdict.
In the New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Wade, the Court ruled that the state may not admit statements obtained in violation of a suspect’s Miranda rights as evidence at trial. The facts of the underlying case are significant. The police arrested the defendant, Wade, and told him he was under arrest for murder. Before then, the police investigation pieced together sightings of a stolen vehicle linked to a murder and two men who appeared to drive the stolen car. The police traced GPS records of the subject vehicle, camera footage from a liquor store where the car appeared for a time, and cell phone data records to establish a circumstantial case against the defendant for the murder.
After arrest and upon interrogation of the defendant, the officer read the defendant’s Miranda rights. Wade requested a lawyer, stating, “I got a lawyer…let me talk to him.” But the officer pressed on with the interrogation, misstating whether the defendant was under arrest. When the defendant asked the officer whether he was under arrest, the officer replied, “I didn’t say you’re under arrest.”
During the interrogation, the defendant identified himself in camera footage the police showed him and stated he was in the liquor store until 2 a.m., which the police refuted with evidence showing him at other locations. At that point, the defendant requested a lawyer, and the interrogation ended. At trial, the prosecution introduced the incriminating admission by the defendant and the lie about his whereabouts, after which the jury found him guilty.
The Court allowed the evidence because it relied on the defendant’s familiarity with the judicial system, the detectives’ reading of the defendant’s Miranda rights, the defendant’s waiver of his rights, and the lack of coercion on the detectives’ part. The Court also found the detective’s misstatement about the arrest immaterial, given the defendant’s awareness of the interrogation. As a result, the jury saw the camera footage and heard the defendants’ statements during the interrogation, after which they found him guilty of all charges, including first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison with additional restrictions outlined in the No Early Release Act.
The Wade lower court determined that the defendant waived his Miranda rights. The Appellate Court affirmed the lower Court’s decision, allowing the interrogation evidence and asserting that there was no arrest warrant, nor charges against the defendant at the time of the interrogation. The majority of the evidence supposedly pointed to the defendant as a suspect. The Appellate Court also determined that the defendant waived his right to an attorney because he did not insist on speaking to his lawyer during the interrogation.
Ordinarily, defendants may waive their right to an attorney during an interrogation in New Jersey. The state may use evidence obtained after a waiver as long as the state proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the waiver is knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. A court will examine the totality of the circumstances to review whether a waiver was voluntary, meaning not coerced and knowing, given the defendant’s age, intelligence, and education. Other factors include the conditions of the interrogation and defendant, such as the length of the interrogation and the constitutional rights advice the police offer. Additionally, the defendant’s waiver must be intelligent, meaning they know their constitutional right to refuse to answer police questions and speak to an attorney.
The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court’s ruling and remanded the case for a new trial. The Court reasoned that the defendant clearly invoked his right to an attorney, at which point the interrogation needed to end. The defendant argued that his reliance on the detective’s misstatement about his arrest invalidated any waiver of his Miranda rights, and the Supreme Court agreed. The state argued that the totality of the circumstances showed the defendant waived his rights and that it was a harmless error to present the interview information to the jury because the jury would have reached the same verdict without it. The Supreme Court disagreed, insisting that it is never a harmless error when the state violates a defendant’s constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
In addition, the Court noted that the state’s case was circumstantial, so the defendant’s self-identification was crucial. Moreover, the defendant’s lie about his location probably persuaded the jury that his testimony was not credible and, thus, the evidence was not “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” In other words, the defendant bolstered the state’s case with inculpatory evidence. As such, the admissibility error was not harmless.
The bright line the Court made regarding harmless error considering a Miranda warning violation has meaningful implications for defendants when police infringe upon their constitutional rights against self-incrimination. The Court stressed, and all parties agreed, that the defendant’s request for an attorney, even if ambiguous, should have ended the interrogation until the defendant spoke to his attorney. In other words, the focus is not on what happened afterward with a possible waiver of those rights. The critical point was the detectives violated the defendant’s rights by continuing the interview after he asserted his right to an attorney.
Though the state cannot use incriminating evidence obtained in violation of Miranda rights now, the Wade case explicitly delineates when that violation occurs. Once a defendant asks for an attorney, the interrogation is over until the defendant has their attorney. The state’s burden is now heavier to prove that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant waived their rights after exercising them. As a result, a pretrial Miranda hearing to determine if the state violated a defendant’s rights may end in suppressing the defendant’s confessions and other damning evidence if the defendant asserted their rights before the police obtained such evidence.
Should You Request an Attorney if Police want to Question You in NJ? Yes, Always Ask for an Attorney
At The Tormey Law Firm, our attorneys receive calls from jails and police stations throughout New Jersey, including in Bergen County, Morris County, Essex County, Passaic County, Hudson County, and Middlesex County. Whether it is you calling from a jail or you are calling on behalf of a loved one who recently got arrested or you are simply contacted by the police to come down to the local station for questioning, we are prepared to help in your time of need and start protecting your rights immediately. Our criminal lawyers often meet with clients at the police station or in the jail soon after their arrests and argue for their release at detention hearings. From there, we are on your side every step of the way and finding the best ways to get a positive outcome.
Not only that, but when the police arrest you and violate your Miranda rights, talk to a criminal defense attorney at The Tormey Law Firm about whether we can fight to get this evidence thrown out and inadmissible in court. This is one of our highly effective defense strategies to beat criminal cases like aggravated assault, heroin distribution, terroristic threats, gun charges, and theft cases. Contact (201)-556-1570 to speak with one of our attorneys about your case today.