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Bobby v. DIxon Miranda Case Supreme Court Finds in Favor of Police!

Written by Randy Means

In Superman comic books during the early-1960s, there was a villain named Bizarro, a reverse image of Superman, who was from a planet where everything was the reverse of how things are on Earth, the reverse of how we normally think of things. For example, the planet, Htrae (Earth spelled backwards), was cube shaped and ugly was regarded as beautiful. In Bobby v. Dixon, the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Miranda, police procedure was bizarro, and ugly turned out beautifully.

The Murder

Dixon and an accomplice brutally murdered Hammer in order to steal his car. They beat him, tied him up, and buried him alive - shoveling dirt on him as he still struggled. Dixon then used Hammer’s personal documents to obtain false identification in Hammer’s name, established fraudulent ownership of Hammer’s car, then sold it for $2,800. Meanwhile, Hammer’s mother reported him missing and the police began investigating his disappearance. Police had multiple contacts with Dixon as the missing person case evolved into a murder investigation. The Supreme Court decision focused on three of those contacts.

First Miranda Was Non-Custodial

The first of the contacts was a chance encounter in the police station. While Dixon was retrieving his car (impounded for a traffic violation) from the police station, a detective saw Dixon and asked to talk with him about Hammer’s disappearance. The detective advised Dixon of Miranda rights though it was unnecessary because Dixon was not in custody. Dixon (predictably) refused to talk without an attorney and left the building. Had the assertion of the right to counsel occurred during custodial interrogation, it would have blocked further police-initiated interrogation on all matters, at least as long as custody continued.

In deciding this case, however, the Supreme Court reminded that a suspect cannot invoke Miranda rights except in a situation where Miranda rights actually apply – i.e. custodial interrogation. Therefore, Dixon’s purported assertion of the right to counsel was not binding on police and an “anticipatory” assertion of rights does not block subsequent police efforts at custodial interrogation. Dixon remained fair game despite his telling police that he refused to talk with them without a lawyer.

Custodial Interrogation – No Miranda

In the second contact, when Dixon was arrested on murder-related forgery charges, detectives decided not to Mirandize him before questioning for fear he would again refuse to talk to them and simply proceeded with intermittent questioning. Dixon admitted to various aspects of forging Hammer’s name but denied knowing anything about Hammer’s disappearance.

The detectives pressed Dixon, telling him his accomplice had given them better information and indicating his accomplice might start “cutting a deal” – explicitly reminding Dixon that the “deal” would only go to the first person to cooperate. Dixon again said he did not know anything about Hammer’s disappearance and eventually the interrogation ended. Dixon went to jail.

In this contact, the detectives intentionally violated Miranda by conducting custodial interrogation without first advising of Miranda rights. The Supreme Court ruled that Dixon’s resulting unwarned confession to forgery was properly suppressed, inadmissible as evidence. The Court noted that, although Dixon was not advised of his rights, he was treated well (offered food and provided water and breaks) and ruled that his statements were voluntary, not coerced – that nothing happened during this encounter that would have compelled him to later confess to murder.

Miranda Applied Properly - Finally

In the third contact, about four hours later, after interviewing Dixon’s accomplice and locating Hammer’s body, the detectives brought Dixon back to the police station. Before any police questioning began, Dixon stated that he had talked to his attorney and he wanted to tell the detectives what happened. Detectives nonetheless advised Dixon of his rights, which he waived in writing.

After talking for about half an hour, the police started using a tape recorder and again advised Dixon of Miranda rights. Dixon gave a detailed murder confession, accepting some responsibility for murdering Hammer but also placing heavy blame on his accomplice.

Legal Analysis

Dixon’s initial request for counsel occurred when he was not in custody and he was not yet formally charged. Therefore, neither the Miranda-based right to counsel nor the Sixth Amendment right to counsel were in effect. Because someone cannot assert rights that he doesn’t yet have, his purported assertion was futile and had no binding effect on police. During the next interrogation, Dixon was in custody but the detectives chose not to Mirandize him and elicited his confession to forgery – that confession was inadmissible.

Later, in a maneuver reminiscent of the two-step interrogation technique that the Court prohibited in Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004), detectives advised Dixon of his rights and interrogated him again, this time obtaining his confession to murder. The Court ruled that Dixon’s murder confession could be used against him.

At first glance, this final interrogation seems to violate Seibert. In Seibert, the Court outlawed a previously popular two-step interrogation technique in which police would intentionally violate Miranda by interrogating a suspect in custody without advice of rights then, after getting the suspect’s confession (the cat out of the bag), police would advise the suspect of his rights and have him repeat the confession, this time after signing a waiver of rights.

In the Dixon case, however, the Court ruled that police did not violate Seibert because there was “no nexus” between the earlier “unwarned” forgery confession and the subsequent “warned” murder confession which occurred a few hours later. The detectives did not sidestep Miranda rights and break Dixon down to confession, then Mirandize him and take him back through his confession in the aftermath.

In fact, in Dixon’s earlier unwarned statement, he confessed only to the lesser forgery charges and steadfastly denied having anything to do with Hammer’s disappearance. Moreover, Dixon initiated the final interrogation with the detectives, saying he had talked to his attorney and now wanted to tell the detectives what happened. Noting these differences, the Court found no Seibert violation and no other reason to suppress Dixon’s murder confession.

The Key Points

Despite its several bizarro features, the Dixon case illustrates several key points of Miranda law. Most importantly, it re-emphasizes that the right to counsel cannot be asserted “anticipatorily” - in advance of the circumstances in which the right would exist. Only a person experiencing exposure to custodial interrogation can effectively invoke the Miranda-based right to counsel.

Only a person formally charged by indictment or arraignment can effectively assert the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and, even then, police may later respectfully approach the subject in an effort to interrogate, even on the formally charged matter. See Montejo v. Louisiana, 556 U.S. 778 (2009). A waiver of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel would be necessary in order to question such a person on the formally charged matter but that can be accomplished through ordinary Miranda-type waiver procedures.

Regarding the Seibert case and its rule, it’s still very much in play, it just did not apply to the Dixon facts. The two-step process of first intentionally violating Miranda by unwarned interrogation, getting the cat out of the bag, then advising the subject of his rights and getting him to repeat the confession (and why wouldn’t he, given that he’s already spilled the beans) is still illegal.

Finally, of course, the Dixon case restates with crystal clarity that only custodial interrogation triggers Miranda requirements. Miranda warnings are not necessary in non-custodial interrogation, period.

As importantly, the Court re-emphasizes that a person who is not in custody is not protected by Miranda or its progeny – which sheds light on the likely inapplicability of the recently announced 14 day “stay away” rule of Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S.Ct. 1213 (2010) to a situation where a subject who has asserted the Miranda-based right to counsel during a custodial interrogation bonds out of jail and is no longer in custody. For more information on Maryland v. Shatzer, see our earlier coverage of that case in this column.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at rbmeans@aol.com.

In her 20-year career with law enforcement, Pam McDonald has been a patrol officer, a felony investigator, a felony prosecutor and a college professor in the area of police law. She currently serves as head of the Thomas & Means publications section and assists Randy Means in much of his work. She can be reached at pammcdonaldfirm@aol.com.

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2011

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