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REAVES v. The STATE.
Charlott Lynett Reaves was tried by a Henry County judge and convicted of the murder of her stepdaughter. Reaves appeals, contending only that the trial court erred when it denied in part her motion to suppress certain statements that she made to a law enforcement officer. We see no error and affirm.1
1. Construed in the light most favorable to the finding of guilt, the evidence shows that law enforcement officers responded to the home that Reaves shared with her husband, Rodney, and his 11–year–old daughter, Joella, where the officers found Joella dead in her bedroom.2 Joella had abrasions, bruises, lacerations, and puncture wounds across her body, including a blackened eye and a cut to her head. In addition, the knuckles were missing from one of her hands, and skin was missing from one of her buttocks. According to the medical examiner, Joella died of trauma to almost every area of her body, most of which was not self-inflicted, which resulted in kidney and heart failure. The medical examiner opined at trial that some injuries to Joella were consistent with her having had contact with certain items found in the home, including electrical wire and an umbrella.
Rodney told the officers that Joella had behavioral problems and had tried to hurt herself. Rodney explained that he and Reaves had put Joella into the garage for a “timeout,” had “hogtied” her with speaker wire, and had spanked her with a paddle. Unaware of these statements by Rodney, Sergeant Joseph Smith went to the hospital at which Reaves worked, and she agreed to accompany Sergeant Smith to the police station. There, Reaves herself made several incriminating statements. Among other things, Reaves admitted that she had helped Rodney to tie up Joella, that she had paddled Joella in the previous week, and that she had witnessed physical altercations between Rodney and Joella. Although Reaves does not dispute that the evidence is sufficient to sustain her conviction, we have independently reviewed the evidence, and we conclude that it was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Reaves was guilty of the murder of Joella. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319(III)(B), 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also Henley v. State, 277 Ga. 818, 819(1), 596 S.E.2d 578 (2004), overruled on other grounds, Vergara v. State, 283 Ga. 175, 178(1), 657 S.E.2d 863 (2008).
2. In her motion to suppress, Reaves sought to suppress the statements that she made to Sergeant Smith, contending that some of the statements were made before she was advised of her Miranda3 rights, and the others were made after she was advised of her rights and had invoked her right to counsel. The trial court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. After a hearing, the trial court found that the interview of Reaves was not a custodial interview at the outset, but it became custodial during the course of the interview, and the court denied the motion as to statements made before the interview became custodial. The trial court also found that Reaves was advised of her rights around the time the interview became custodial, but she did not unequivocally invoke her right to counsel until much later. Accordingly, the trial court also denied the motion as to statements made between the time Miranda warnings were given and her unequivocal invocation of her right to counsel. The trial court granted the motion as to statements made following her invocation of the right to counsel. On appeal, Reaves contends that the trial court should have suppressed all the statements that she made to Sergeant Smith.
(a) Miranda warnings are required only when a person is interviewed by law enforcement while in custody. Phillips v. State, 285 Ga. 213, 215(2), 675 S.E.2d 1 (2009). For purposes of Miranda, a person is considered to be in custody if she has been formally arrested or if her freedom of movement has been restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest. Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 322(II), 114 S.Ct. 1526, 128 L.Ed.2d 293 (1994); Henley, 277 Ga. at 819–820(2), 596 S.E.2d 578. An assessment of whether a person was in custody at the time of an interview “involves an examination of the circumstances surrounding the questioning to determine whether a reasonable person would have felt at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.” Vaughn v. State, 282 Ga. 99, 102(4), 646 S.E.2d 212 (2007) (citation and punctuation omitted). “Where an accused is neither in custody nor so restrained as to equate to a formal arrest, any statements made to an investigating officer are made under noncustodial circumstances and Miranda warnings are not required.” Henley, 277 Ga. at 818(2), 596 S.E.2d 578 (citation and punctuation omitted). “On appeal, we accept the trial court's findings on disputed facts and credibility of witnesses unless clearly erroneous and independently apply the legal principles to the facts.” Green v. State, 291 Ga. 287, 291(4), 728 S.E.2d 668 (2012).
In this case, the evidence supports the findings of the trial court that Reaves voluntarily agreed to ride with Sergeant Smith to the police station, that she rode in the front seat of an unmarked patrol car, that she was not handcuffed, and that she was not formally arrested. When they arrived at the police station around 11:00 a.m., Sergeant Smith, who then was unaware that Rodney had implicated Reaves, asked Reaves to write a statement about the victim's medical condition and related events. No one was in the room with her, the door to the room was left open, she could move about freely, and she had full access to a restroom and refreshments. Sergeant Smith later returned to the room at 12:24 p.m., talked with Reaves, and reviewed her statement with her. Later, around 2:15 p.m., Sergeant Smith was informed by another officer that Reaves might be suspected of criminal wrongdoing, and Sergeant Smith read the Miranda warnings to Reaves.
Prior to that time, it appears that Sergeant Smith had little reason to suspect that Reaves was involved in the death of the victim. Sewell v. State, 283 Ga. 558, 561(2), 662 S.E.2d 537 (2008); Henley, 277 Ga. at 820(2), 596 S.E.2d 578. But even if he did suspect her involvement, that fact would not mean that Reaves was in police custody, as “[w]hether a police officer focused his unarticulated suspicions upon the individual being questioned is of no consequence for Miranda purposes.” Sewell, 283 Ga. at 561(2), 662 S.E.2d 537 (citation omitted). Considering all the circumstances as found by the trial court, we conclude that a reasonable person in Reaves's position would not have perceived herself to be in custody before Sergeant Smith read the Miranda warnings and instead would have felt at liberty to end the questioning and leave. Id. at 562(2), 662 S.E.2d 537; Henley, 277 Ga. at 820(2), 596 S.E.2d 578. Consequently, the trial court did not err when it admitted Reaves's pre-Miranda statements. Henley, 277 Ga. at 820(2), 596 S.E.2d 578.
(b) Reaves also contends that the trial court should have excluded all of her post-Miranda statements because they were made after she invoked her right to counsel.4 In Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 484–485(II), 101 S.Ct. 1880, 68 L.Ed.2d 378 (1981), the United States Supreme Court decided that a suspect who asks for a lawyer at any time during a custodial interrogation may not be further questioned by law enforcement until a lawyer has been made available, unless the suspect herself reinitiates the conversation. See also Wheeler v. State, 289 Ga. 537, 538, 713 S.E.2d 393 (2011). “If the police persist in questioning a suspect who has requested that counsel be present, any resulting statements made by the suspect are inadmissible in the State's case-in-chief.”5 Id. at 538–539, 713 S.E.2d 393 (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Edwards, 451 U.S. at 487(II), 101 S.Ct. 1880. To properly invoke her right to counsel during a custodial interrogation, a suspect “must articulate h[er] desire to have counsel present sufficiently clearly that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney.” Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 459(II), 114 S.Ct. 2350, 129 L.Ed.2d 362 (1994). See also Wheeler, 289 Ga. at 539, 713 S.E.2d 393. Because Reaves's pretrial statements were “videotaped and there are no relevant additional facts, the trial court's application of the law to the undisputed facts is subject to de novo appellate review.” Taylor, 274 Ga. at 272(1), 553 S.E.2d 598 (footnote omitted). See also Wheeler, 289 Ga. at 538, 713 S.E.2d 393.
Reaves argues that just before and after she was informed of her rights, she asked about a lawyer on ten occasions, and three of her requests for a lawyer, she says, were unambiguous. The number of times that a suspect refers to a lawyer is not controlling. “An invocation must be clear and unambiguous; the mere mention of the word ‘attorney’ or ‘lawyer’ without more, does not automatically invoke the right to counsel.” Dinkins v. State, 894 S.W.2d 330, 351(IX) (Tex.Crim.App.1995) (citations omitted). See also Collins v. State, 727 S.W.2d 565, 568 (Tex.Crim.App.1987) (“Certainly, no magic words must be stated. But, neither is the mention of ‘lawyer’ a talisman for invocation.”). Accordingly, we turn now to consider each of the three occasions on which, Reaves contends, she unequivocally asked for a lawyer.
On the first occasion, Sergeant Smith told Reaves that he was going to inform her of her Miranda rights, and Reaves asked: “Maybe I will need my lawyer?[6 ] ․ Is that what you're telling me?” When Sgt. Smith asked, “What?”, Reaves answered, “That I need to have me a lawyer.” Reaves claims that this answer was an unequivocal request for counsel. In context, however, it was not such a request, but rather, it was a statement clarifying and completing Reaves's earlier question about whether Sergeant Smith was telling her that she needed to have a lawyer. “The comments on which [Reaves] relies [must be] viewed in context․” Brooks v. State, 271 Ga. 698, 699(2)(a), 523 S.E.2d 866 (1999).
The second reference to a lawyer that Reaves claims to be an unambiguous request for counsel is her question: “When will I have to come back with a lawyer?”7 Sergeant Smith then asked, “What's that?”, and Reaves again asked “When do I have to come back with a lawyer?” Reaves's inquiry as to “when” she would “have to” return with a lawyer was not an unambiguous request for counsel. See Carroll v. State, 275 Ga. 160, 161(2), 563 S.E.2d 125 (2002). Even a comment that a suspect would like counsel to be present in the future is not a clear and unambiguous request for counsel. Luallen v. State, 266 Ga. 174, 178(4), 465 S.E.2d 672 (1996), overruled on other grounds, Clark v. State, 271 Ga. 6, 9–10(5), 515 S.E.2d 155 (1999); Johnson v. State, 289 Ga.App. 41, 43, 656 S.E.2d 200 (2007). See also 2 WAYNE R. LAFAVE ET AL., CRIMINAL PROCEDURE § 6.9(g) (3d ed.) (“An indication by the defendant that he will only want counsel at some future time or for some other purpose is not an assertion of the right to counsel for Miranda purposes․”). At most, Reaves's question as to when she would have to come back with a lawyer was referring to “the future assistance of an attorney, not immediate assistance.” Willis v. State, 287 Ga. 703, 705(2), 699 S.E.2d 1 (2010) (footnote omitted).
On the third occasion when Reaves claims she unambiguously requested counsel, she said, “I would still feel more comfortable with a lawyer.” Sergeant Smith responded, “Okay. So you don't want to talk to me right now?”, and Reaves answered, “not unless I can exercise my rights any time ․ during the conversation.” Sergeant Smith immediately reassured her that “[y]ou can do that․ It's your right, ma'am.” The meaning of Reaves's statement that she would “feel more comfortable” with a lawyer is very similar to the statement “I prefer a lawyer,” which has been considered “only an ambiguous mention of possibly speaking with an attorney” and “insufficient to invoke the right to counsel.” Delashmit v. State, 991 So.2d 1215, 1221(I) (Miss.2008). A reasonable police officer would not understand the third statement on which Reaves relies to be an unequivocal assertion of the right to counsel. Id.
A close examination of Reaves's references to a lawyer shows a “pattern of equivocation” on her part, including the use of “hedge” words and phrases like “maybe” and “feel more comfortable,” such “that a reasonable officer would have understood only that [she] might want an attorney present, not that [s]he was clearly invoking [her] right to deal with the officer[ ] only through counsel.” United States v. Hampton, 675 F.3d 720, 727(II)(A) (7th Cir.2012) (citations omitted; emphasis in original). Under these circumstances, Reaves's post-Miranda statements, other than those which were made after she unequivocally invoked her right to counsel late in the interview and which were excluded by the trial court, were admissible against her, and the trial court did not err in denying in part her motion to exclude her pretrial statements. See Willis, 287 Ga. at 705(1), 699 S.E.2d 1.
All the Justices concur, except HUNSTEIN, C.J., who concurs in Divisions 1 and 2(a) and in the judgment.
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Docket No: No. S12A1582.
Decided: March 18, 2013
Court: Supreme Court of Georgia.
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