Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules that Miranda Warnings, While Not Perfect, Were Good Enough in Sex Prosecution

In a decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court concluded a police officer’s incomplete recitation of Miranda warnings to a suspected sex offender was good enough to allow the defendant’s statement to be admitted to the jury.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lajoie

In November of 2012, a Fall River police detective took the defendant into custody to interrogate him about his alleged involvement in a sex crime that had occurred 15 years earlier.  The detective was accusing the defendant of having sex with a girl who was younger than 16 years old.  The defendant acknowledged having sex with the girl but said she had told him she was 19.  The defendant also asserted the sex was consensual.  When the detective asked if he was the father of the girl’s son (who was 15 years old in 2012), the defendant said his name was on the birth certificate but he didn’t know for sure if he was the father.  The interrogation lasted for 31 minutes and was audio and video recorded.  The detective was polite to the defendant at all times and did not attempt to intimidate or trick him.  During the interview, the defendant agreed to submit to a buccal swab (a swab of the inner cheek to collect DNA).  The defendant was subsequently indicted on charges of child rape, assault with intent to rape, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and violation of a restraining order.  Following his indictment, the defendant filed a motion to suppress his statement, alleging the detective had provided him with incomplete Miranda warnings.  A superior court judge agreed and ordered the statement to be suppressed.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.

Miranda warnings are required to be provided to any suspects who are in custody and are being interrogated by the police.  The warnings state that the suspect has the right to remain silent, that his statement could be used against him in court, that he has the right to the presence of a lawyer, and if that if he can’t afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to him prior to questioning.  Because the defendant here was subject to a custodial interrogation, he was entitled to receive his Miranda warnings and the detective advised him of several of his rights.  However, while the detective advised the defendant he had the right to have an attorney appointed to him prior to questioning, the defendant was not explicitly advised the attorney could be with him during the interrogation.  The superior court judge ruled this omission violated the defendant’s rights.  The Appeals Court disagreed, pointing out that a trio of recent United States Supreme Court decisions have ruled a defendant is not entitled to the clearest possible formulation of Miranda’s right-to-counsel warning as long as the warning is sufficiently comprehensive and comprehensible when considered in a commonsense fashion.  In this case, the Appeals Court held that the warnings given by the detective, when viewed in their totality, were sufficient to warn the defendant he had the right to an attorney during the police interview.