Washington Supreme Court Vacates Drug Conviction Based on Border Interrogation

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from being compelled to incriminate themselves.  Government agents must inform individuals in their custody of the rights to remain silent and to have counsel, known as the Miranda warning. If the government fails to give a required Miranda warning, any incriminating statements the individual makes cannot be used against him in a criminal case.  A recent Washington Supreme Court case examined when an individual held at a border crossing is “in custody” for purposes of Miranda requirements.

As the defendant and his friends were crossing the border to return from a music festival in Canada, they were directed to a secondary inspection area by the border agents.  An agent told them to leave their things in the van and wait in the lobby at the secondary area.  The door to the lobby was locked, so it was not accessible to the public or other travelers. The individuals in the lobby had to ask for permission and be patted down before using the restroom or getting water.  The agents found narcotics on two of the other men who were with the defendant and took them to detention cells.

The defendant was kept in the locked lobby for five hours.  The agents found paraphernalia and personal items containing drugs in the van.  The defendant and his friend were the only travelers in the lobby.  The agents asked the men who owned each of the items and the defendant admitting owning the backpack that had small amounts of heroin and LSD in it.

The agents contacted law enforcement, who arrested the defendant.  The defendant moved to suppress his statement.  The state argued the defendant was not in custody when he was questioned.  The trial court admitted the statement into evidence, and the defendant was convicted.  He appealed, and the Washington Supreme Court granted review after the appeals court affirmed the conviction.

The parties agreed the defendant was interrogated while in the lobby. The issue, then, was whether he was in custody.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a person is in custody when his “freedom of action is curtailed to a ‘degree associated with formal arrest.’”  Berkemer v. McCarty.

To determine if a person was in custody, the court must consider how a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have understood them.  The court considers the totality of the circumstances, including the location, the extent of police control over the area, the extent of physical restraint, and the length and nature of the questioning.

The state argued the detention was constitutional under the Fourth Amendment, so the defendant was not in custody for purposes of the Fifth Amendment.  The Washington Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting the defendant had not raised a Fourth Amendment challenge.

Border searches and seizures are an exception to the general warrant requirement.  The government has an interest in preventing unwanted individuals and items from entering the country, so routine border searches and seizures are allowed without any requirement of individualized suspicion.  The Washington Supreme Court noted that the question of whether a border search or detention is allowed under the Fourth Amendment is its reasonableness, with the individual’s privacy balanced against protection of the border.

The Fifth Amendment Miranda requirement does not consider the government’s interest or the reasonableness of the seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  Generally, a traveler is not in custody during a routine detention at a border crossing because such travelers anticipate being required to stop and respond to certain questions.  This expectation reduces the likelihood that the encounter is coercive.  Such routine stops are usually short and limited, involving only one or two agents.  However, a border detention may constitute custody, depending on the totality of the circumstances.

The Washington Supreme Court found the defendant was in custody at the time of the interrogation.  He had answered questions in the primary inspection area, and moved to a secondary inspection area.  The agents separated him from his belongings, took his documents, and conducted a pat-down. They detained him in a locked lobby for five hours. He was not allowed to leave.  His access to water and restroom facilities was limited.  The Washington Supreme Court found these circumstances “created precisely the type of incommunicado police-dominated environment that was the concern of Miranda.”

The defendant was in custody at the time he was questioned.  Because he was not given a Miranda warning, his statements should not have been admitted in the case against him. The Washington Supreme Court vacated his convictions and remanded the case.

A person facing drug charges in Washington needs an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney fighting to protect their rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.

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