Everyone's Going To Jail, Unless Someone Confesses...

weed baggie.jpgTraffic stops are never fun, and here in Orlando, we have a few more stops than the rest of the state. As might be expected, these stops get worse when drugs are found in the car. So, once an officer finds drugs, the next logical question is "Who's drugs are these?". Police are entitled to ask such questions, but within certain limitations. Sure, cops get excited when they think there's a possession of oxycodone conviction right around the corner, but when police questioning sounds too much like an interrogation, any answers to this line of questioning may be thrown out of court (suppressed). Such was the case in England v. State, 46 So.3d 127 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).

Defendant England was a passenger in a car during a traffic stop. The driver gave the officer consent to search, and cannabis was found. Once the weed was found, the officer confronted the driver and passenger, demanding that if someone did not admit to owning the drugs, they both would be arrested. In response to this, England confessed to owning the drugs and was found guilty of possession of cannabis and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The question here becomes, was England's confession legal, given the fact that it was given without the benefit of Miranda warnings? The court analyzed four factors that determine when these warnings must be given: (1) the manner in which the police question the suspect; (2) the place, purpose and manner of the investigation; (3) the extent to which the suspect is confronted with evidence of his guilt; and (4) whether the suspect is informed that he is free to leave.

England argued that he was improperly subjected to custodial interrogation without the benefit of Miranda warnings. Fortunately, the appellate court agreed, thereby throwing out the confession and subsequent conviction for possession of cannabis and possession of drug paraphernalia. "The degree of custody needed to trigger a Miranda warning rests on the suspect's reasonable belief that [his] freedom of action was 'curtailed to a degree associated with actual arrest.' " State v. Shuttleworth, 927 So.2d 975, 978 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (quoting Traylor v. State, 596 So.2d 957, 966 n. 16 (Fla.1992)). Id. at 130.

The court found two of the above four factors supported their finding that England should have been read his Miranda warnings. First, he was not told he was free to leave. Second, he was confronted with evidence of a crime. See Shuttleworth, 927 So.2d at 978; Fowler v. State, 782 So.2d 461, 462 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) (holding that appellant was subjected to custodial interrogation which required Miranda warnings where appellant was asked to get out of his car, told he was suspected of selling drugs, and asked whether he had anything on him). Of further concern was the fact that England was "interrogated" by the deputy, telling both England and the driver of the car that they would be arrested if someone did not own up to possessing the marijuana, as such interrogation would likely elicit an incriminating response. See Shuttleworth, at 978; Fowler, 782 So.2d at 462; see also United States v. Green, 776 F.Supp. 565, 566-68 (D.D.C.1991) (holding that where officer told appellant that if someone did not own up to possessing drugs in car, the officer would presume the drugs belonged to appellant's mother, the officer's tactics amounted to custodial interrogation because they were likely to elicit an incriminating response).

Because England was not given Miranda warnings, his statements confessing ownership of the drugs should have been suppressed, and his conviction was overturned. I know I've said this a thousand times, but based upon my 17+ years of criminal defense in Orlando, it bears repeating in light of Mr. England's confession--please do not speak with the police without first calling a local criminal defense attorney. Is that so hard?