The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled the Commonwealth was permitted to use a defendant’s statement to a police officer against him at trial, even though the defendant had been under arrest and in the custody of the Cambridge Police Department for more than six hours at the time of his statement. The case is Commonwealth v. McWilliams and it is notable because it establishes an exception to the so-called “safe harbor rule” that governs police interactions with suspects who are under arrest.
The defendant allegedly robbed a Cambridge bank on July 7, 2011, and fled with $2,614. Approximately three weeks later, he was spotted around the same bank and the police were called. Officers located the defendant outside of the bank holding a bag that appeared to contain a gun (it was later determined to be a pellet gun). The police arrested the defendant and transported him to the police station for booking. A Cambridge detective interviewed the defendant, who claimed he was simply getting some fresh air when he was sitting outside of the bank. After the defendant told his story to the detective, the police stopped asking him questions. After being in custody for more than six hours, the defendant asked to speak to the detective again. The defendant told the detective he had left his bicycle outside of a parking garage that was in the same building as the bank. Locked to the bicycle was a bag that contained the defendant’s eyeglasses. The defendant asked the detective to retrieve his glasses from the bag. The detective returned to the bank and found the defendant’s bike. The detective noticed there was a security camera located on the parking garage’s property and he made arrangements with the garage owner to obtain the footage from the date of the first robbery. The video showed the defendant leave the garage a couple of minutes after the bank was robbed.
Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and argued his trial lawyer had provided ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion to suppress the statement he made to the police, more than six hours after his arrest, regarding his bicycle and eyeglasses. The defendant argued that because the surveillance camera was discovered as a result of his statement, the video also should have been suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. In a case decided in 1996, the Supreme Judicial Court established a rule that an arrestee’s statement in response to police questioning is ordinarily inadmissible at trial if the statement is made more than six hours after the arrest. The rule is intended to prevent improper police conduct in the form of unreasonably long interrogations and to ensure arrestees are promptly brought to court and represented by counsel following their arrests. Because police officers know arrestees’ statements made in response to questioning after six hours will not be admissible in court, they are less likely to intentionally prolong custodial interrogations. In this case, however, the defendant was not responding to police questioning. He made a voluntary, unsolicited statement that was unprompted by police conduct. The SJC said because the police did not initiate an interrogation after six hours had elapsed, there was no violation of the safe harbor rule.
People who are under arrest at a police station should never volunteer information to the cops. This case perfectly illustrates the damage that can result from talking to the police.