Washington Appeals Court Affirms Juvenile Conviction After Confession Was Wrongfully Admitted at Trial

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the right to be free from self-incrimination. The police must advise suspects of their rights when they are subject to a custodial interrogation by a state agent.  If they fail to give the Miranda warning, then the statements made during the custodial interrogation are presumed to be involuntary and are to be excluded from evidence.  A juvenile defendant in a Washington criminal case recently challenged his conviction on the grounds the court erred in admitting the statement he made to the chief of police in the principal’s office.

The fourteen-year-old defendant had been talking about video games with some classmates in one of their middle school classes.  The other students said the defendant said something like “he was going to shoot the school.” One student said he did not really take the statement seriously because the defendant said that sort of thing “all the time” and he thought the defendant was joking.

The other student also said the defendant had previously made similar statements he had not taken seriously.  This time, however, he was concerned and told the teacher.  He said the defendant did not make the statement to anyone individually, but muttered it to himself.  He said he was afraid the defendant would hurt someone.

The defendant told the principal he did not make the statement.  The principal contacted law enforcement.

The chief of police spoke with the principal and took the witnesses’ statements.  He and the principal then spoke with the defendant in the principal’s office.  The door was closed.  The chief did not advise the defendant of his Miranda rights or arrest him or indicate he was free to leave.  The principal stated that he would not have let the defendant go and would have required him to stay in the office until the investigation was concluded.  The chief said the defendant confirmed he made the statements but said he was joking and not serious.  He arrested the defendant.

The defendant was charged with felony harassment.  He sought exclusion of his statement because he was in custody and not able to leave during the interrogation. The trial court found the defendant was in the office under the principal’s direction and the officer had not escalated the encounter to the point the defendant was in custody.  The court therefore found the defendant was not in custody at the time he made the statement. The defendant was found guilty of felony harassment.

The trial court found the defendant made an alleged threat “to return to the school with a gun and shoot students,” or “shoot[]up the school tomorrow.”  The student who reported the statement had overheard it and did not think the statement was “directed to any one person.”  The court found the other student did not take the threat seriously, but the student who reported it was “worried” and “concerned enough” to report it.  The court also found the principal was concerned for the safety of students, staff, and the school. The court found the defendant confirmed he made the statement but said he was not serious about it.

The defendant appealed, arguing the trial court erred in admitting his statements because he was in custody and the officer did not advise him of his Miranda rights.

The state conceded the defendant was in custody when the chief interrogated him.  He was questioned by law enforcement about an accusation that he violated the law.  The defendant was fourteen years old and the interrogation occurred in the principal’s office with a closed door.  He was not told he was free to leave.

The appeals court found that, pursuant to previous case law, whether it was the principal or the police officer who prevented the defendant from leaving was immaterial to the question of whether he was in custody.  The appeals court found a reasonable fourteen-year-old in the same circumstances would have felt his “freedom was curtailed to the degree associated with a formal arrest.”  The appeals court concluded the defendant was in custody and the officer was required to inform him of his Miranda  rights before questioning him.

The defendant argued admission of the confession was prejudicial because there was insufficient evidence to convict him without it.  The state argued admission of the confession was harmless error.

A person commits harassment if they knowingly threaten to cause bodily injury to the person threatened or any other person without lawful authority and place the person in reasonable fear they will carry out the threat.  A threat is a class C felony if the person threatens to kill the threatened person or anyone else.  RCW 9A.46.020.  The state must also show that the threat was a true threat, meaning it was a serious threat rather than a joke or idle talk.

Admission of a custodial statement given without a Miranda warning may be treated as harmless error if the court finds that a reasonable fact finder would have reached the same conclusion absent the error.

The appeals court found excluding the confession would not have changed the trial’s result because there were witnesses who testified the defendant made the statement.  The defendant did not claim he did not make the statement, but instead argued he was joking, consistent with the chief’s testimony about what he said.  The appeals court found the confession had minimal significance and was cumulative of the other evidence.  The appeals court therefore found its admission was harmless error.

Although the appeals court agreed the defendant was subject to an unlawful custodial interrogation, it found admission of the confession was harmless error.  The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

If your child may be facing criminal charges, you need the support and advice of an experienced Washington juvenile criminal defense attorney.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up an appointment.