Miranda still counts sometimes!
An appeals court panel on Tuesday threw out the sexual assault adjudication of an intellectually challenged teenage boy because the armed detective who questioned him alone in a closed conference room did not read the youth his Miranda rights or tell him he had the right to have an adult present.
At the time of his questioning, the boy, referred to as James in the decision by District 3 Appeals Judge Mark A. Seidl, resided by court order at Tomorrow's Children, a residential facility for children with special needs. James was not allowed to leave the grounds of the complex. When he was questioned in 2013, James was 16, but his math and English skills were at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, Seidl wrote. James' IQ previously was measured at 68.
"The totality of the circumstances suggested James was not free to terminate the law enforcement encounter, and (Waupaca County Sheriff's Detective John) Mocadlo—the adult authority figure who was directing the encounter—did nothing to dispel that notion," Seidl wrote in remanding the case. "To conclude a teenager in James’s circumstances would have felt free to get up and walk away would ignore the reality of the situation."
Mocadlo questioned James at Tomorrow's Children about the sexual assault of another resident at 40 days earlier. (Yes, one may question why it took the Sheriff's Department 40 days to investigate a crime.) The detective was in plain clothes, but was wearing a badge and carrying a gun, both of them visible.
Mocadlo did not tell James that he did not have to participate in the interview or that he had the right to have his parents or another adult present.
Mocadlo took James to a basement conference room "and closed the door behind them," Seidl wrote. "Mocadlo never told James that he had the right to get up and walk out the door or that he was free to leave. However, James was not physically restrained or handcuffed."
The detective did not give Miranda warnings, but told James that if he did not want to answer a question, to say so and they would "move on."
Eventually, Mocadlo told James he was there to investigate an incident that had occurred between James and another boy and James described his sexual contact with the resident. The staff already had talked to him about it, James said.
James asked St. Croix County Circuit Judge Edward Vlack III to suppress the statement, but Vlack declined.
"A reasonable person in James’s position would not have felt free to terminate the interrogation and leave the scene," Seidl wrote. "The overall context of James’s experience was that he was already involuntarily present at the facility, placed there by court order....While we do not equate James’s placement to jail, from the perspective of someone in James’s position, he was restricted to the facility grounds by governmental authority and was under constant supervision. Presumably, there would be negative consequences for failure to follow staff instructions."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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