Massachusetts Appeals Court Says Suspects Detained in Drug Investigation Were Not Legally “in Custody”

In reversing a superior court judge’s allowance of two men’s motions to suppress evidence and statements, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled the men were not in custody despite being approached in a restaurant parking lot by two police officers, being ordered not to move, and being separated for interrogation.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cawthron.

A Tewksbury police detective, who was wearing civilian clothes and driving an unmarked car, was buying a drink at a convenience store when he overheard Keith Cawthron speaking on his cell phone.  Cawthron was having a discussion that appeared to be related to the sale of illegal drugs.  As a result, the detective began following Cawthron’s car as it left the convenience store parking lot.  Cawthron drove to a nearby restaurant parking lot and stopped his car.  About five minutes later, a second man arrived and approached Cawthron.  The two men shook hands and exchanged items.  At that point the detective and a second officer (who had arrived at the request of the original detective) approached the men and identified themselves as police officers.  Neither officer was wearing a uniform, but they were both armed with their service weapons and at least one of the officers was wearing his police badge around his neck.  After ordering the men not to move, the cops separated them to prevent them from “get[ting] their stories straight.”  One of the men was provided with Miranda warnings but the other was not.  The cops began questioning them about their drug dealing activities and the men both admitted they were involved in dealing a large quantity of Oxycodone pills.  One of the officers went into one of the men’s cars and retrieved a pill bottle containing the narcotics.  Both men were charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy.

Once in court, the defendants filed a motion to suppress: (1) the drugs; and (2) the statements they made to the police.  Following a hearing during which the police officers testified, a superior court judge concluded the cops did not properly provide Miranda warnings to the defendants, and therefore their statements (and the drugs recovered as a result of their statements) would not be admissible at the trial.  The Commonwealth appealed the judge’s order of suppression and the Appeals Court reversed.

Many people do not understand that the police are not required to read a suspect Miranda warnings in every situation.  The warnings are required only during custodial interrogation – that is, when the defendant is in custody and is being interrogated by the cops.  This case turned on whether the defendants were in custody at the time they were being questioned by the cops in the restaurant parking lot – would a reasonable person in the defendant’s position have believed he was in custody?  The obvious answer (of course they were in custody!) is not supported by the law.  Courts consider several factors in determining whether a suspect is in custody: the place where the questioning occurred; whether the cops tell the person he is a suspect; the tone of the questioning (was it aggressive and confrontational or informal?); and whether the defendant was free to end the interview by walking away from the officer.  The Appeals Court ruled that application of these factors compelled the conclusion that the defendants were not in custody in the legal sense.  The interrogation took place in a public parking lot and was conducted by two police officers in a non-aggressive, casual manner.  The police did not draw their guns or raise their voices.  The defendants were not told they were suspects.  Under these circumstances, the defendants were not legally in custody and therefore not entitled to Miranda warnings.  Therefore, the drugs and the defendants’ statements will be presented to the jury.

Massachusetts appellate courts have a long history of concluding defendants were not in custody when any rational person would believe he was not free to leave.  Courts justify these stops as “investigatory” in nature.  Of course, the smartest thing anyone stopped by the police can do is to stay silent.  People being investigated by the police almost never help themselves by making statements.