The PA Superior Court has decided the case of In re: J.N.W., a minor, No. 1759 MDA 2017 (Pa. Super. 10/3/2018), holding that J.N.W. was subjected to custodial interrogations and did not knowingly waive her Miranda rights in each of four separate encounters with authorities investigating the overdose death of her friend.
J.N.W. was nine days short of her eighteenth birthday when her best friend, eighteen-year-old Nicholas Lintz (“Lintz”), died of a heroin overdose. In the hours before his death, Lintz and J.N.W. had snorted the heroin in the apartment where J.N.W. lived with her mother (“Janis”) and with J.N.W.’s three-year-old son (“E.W.”). Janis was in North Carolina at the time. E.W. was in the apartment with J.N.W. and Lintz at the time of the incident.
J.N.W. was ultimately petitioned to Juvenile Court on allegations of endangering welfare of children (“EWOC”) and drug delivery resulting in death (“DDRD”) as a result of the police investigation. Prior to her hearing, J.N.W. filed a Motion to Suppress statements that she made to authorities on four separate occasions after the incident.
The suppression court examined each of the four encounters between J.N.W. and the authorities and concluded J.N.W. was subjected to custodial interrogations and did not knowingly waive her Miranda rights.
J.N.W.’s Motion to Suppress was thereafter granted.
The Commonwealth appealed, framing the issue as follows: Did the suppression court err by concluding that J.N.W. was subjected to custodial interrogations where she was neither in custody nor asked questions likely to elicit incriminating responses?
Specifically, the Commonwealth argued that J.N.W. was not subjected to custodial interrogations at the time she provided statements to police and a deputy coroner, obviating the need for Miranda warnings.
The Superior Court considered each of the above encounters separately and ultimately concluded that the trial court committed no error in suppressing J.N.W.’s statements.
QUESTIONING OF J.N.W. IN HER HOME
As to the first encounter, the Superior Court concluded that J.N.W. was subjected to a custodial interrogation and that she did not knowingly waive her Miranda rights when questioned at the scene by a police officer. The trial court had noted her psychological state would have inhibited her ability to make a rational waiver of her rights and, it also commented that no adult was present in the home.
The Superior Court noted that J.N.W. was: visibly upset; questioned about her use and procurement of the heroin she used with Lintz; advised she would have to be checked out at the hospital because she was a juvenile and had possibly consumed bad drugs; and, told she needed to call E.W.’s father to come to the apartment and stay with E.W. while J.N.W. was at the hospital.
QUESTIONING OF J.N.W. AT THE HOSPITAL
While at the hospital, the deputy coroner—a former police officer with approximately 26 years’ experience on the force – went to J.N.W.’s room, identified himself as being from the coroner’s office, and told her he “was just trying to find out what events occurred that led to the death.”
In addition to answering his questions about the incident, J.N.W. told the coroner she was 17 and that E.M.S. personnel took her to the hospital but she did not want to go. Although the deputy coroner testified that he identified himself as such, J.N.W. was under the misimpression that he was a police detective.
The Superior Court agreed with J.N.W. in that the coroner questioned her about the person who provided the heroin, a line of questioning not designed to lead to a determination of death. And, the nature of his questions; the fact J.N.W. did not want to remain at the hospital and was reluctant to answer questions; and, the fact the coroner reported on his interview of J.N.W. to law enforcement, all supported the conclusion that J.N.W. was subjected to a custodial interrogation while at the hospital.
Noting that under certain circumstances, individuals who are not law enforcement personnel nevertheless possess the status of law enforcement for purposes of custodial interrogation and, considering the totality of the circumstances, the Superior Court agreed with the suppression court that J.N.W. was in custody for Miranda purposes at the hospital.
QUESTIONING OF J.N.W. AT SCHOOL
J.N.W. was taken to the principal’s office where the officers interviewed her behind a closed door for approximately 15 to 20 minutes. During the interview, the officers attempted to obtain information regarding the source of the heroin.
QUESTIONING OF J.N.W. AT EXETER POLICE DEPARTMENT
J.N.W. and her mother Janis met with Detectives for an interview at the police station four days after Lintz’s death. J.N.W. did not want to go to the interview but Janis told her she “had to go.”
While the interview likely did not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation initially, the officers made references to CYS and continued to press J.N.W. on the identity of her “connect” while mentioning that the District Attorney would be looking at EWOC charges.
On a number of occasions, a detective made remarks to the effect that the District Attorney would not be thrilled with her refusal to identify the source of the heroin. He later commented that if she identified the source, nothing would happen but if she did not, “bad stuff will happen.”
The suppression court concluded that “[t]he officers’ demeanor, her mother’s own urging for her to answer the questions posed, her demonstrated reluctance to do so, and the very lengthy interview time all weigh toward [J.N.W.’s] statements not constituting a voluntary waiver.” The Superior Court agreed. It found no error in the suppression court’s decision, considering the totality of the circumstances, including the several threatening references to possible charges against her and possible removal of her son from her care.
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