WI Supreme Court says reasonable person would feel free to leave cops after confessing violent crime
By Margo Kirchner
A suspect who confessed to a serious crime during a police interview at a police station was not in custody afterwards when he asked for a lawyer, the State Supreme Court ruled last week.
As a result, officers did not need to comply with the suspect’s request for counsel, the Court said in a 5-2 opinion written by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, in a dissent, said the majority was “engaging in a work of fantasy” by suggesting that Daniel Bartelt could reasonably believe after his confession that he was free to leave the Slinger police station.
Bartelt argued to the Court that police improperly questioned him after he invoked his right to counsel. The Court found, however, that Bartelt was not in custody when he first said anything about an attorney.
The right to counsel does not attach until a suspect is “in custody,” which occurs when, under the totality of the circumstances, “a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the interview and leave the scene,” according to the Court.
In July 2013, detectives from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and Hartford Police Department investigated an armed assault in a Richfield park and a subsequent murder in Hartford. Detectives quickly identified Bartelt as a person of interest regarding the assault based on a vehicle seen at the crime scene and a composite sketch of the attacker. The murder victim was Bartelt’s former girlfriend.
A detective contacted Bartelt and asked to speak with him about an unspecified incident. Bartelt agreed to meet with Washington County Sheriff’s Department detectives at the Slinger Police Department. Bartelt believed the detectives wanted to talk about the murder.
Two detectives questioned Bartelt in an interview room containing a table and three chairs. One door to the room was open and the other was unlocked. The detectives did not search Bartelt. They told Bartelt that he was not in trouble, was not under arrest, and could leave at any time. They then asked questions about the attack in the park.
The interview lasted about 30 minutes. While questioning Bartelt, one of the detectives moved his chair from one side of the table to about two feet from Bartelt and accused Bartelt of lying. After more questioning, Bartelt admitted he had attacked the woman in the park.
A detective asked Bartelt to put the confession in writing and said there likely would be more questions. Bartelt then asked whether he should “speak to a lawyer or anything.” The detective said yes, that was an option, to which Bartelt responded, “I think I’d prefer that.”
At that point, the detectives suspended the interview, took Bartelt’s cell phone, and left the room. They returned a few minutes later, told Bartelt he was under arrest, handcuffed him, and sent him to the Washington County Jail.
The next day, in a Washington County Sheriff’s Department interview room, Hartford Police Department detectives questioned Bartelt about the murder. Although the detectives read Bartelt his Miranda rights before questioning him, no counsel was present notwithstanding Bartelt’s mention of a lawyer the day before.
Bartelt waived all of his Miranda rights and was questioned for about 90 minutes regarding his relationship with the murder victim and his whereabouts on the day she died. Based on statements Bartelt made during the second interview, detectives found physical evidence linking Bartelt to the murder.
In court, Bartelt moved to suppress his statements and any evidence derived from them. Following denial of the motion by Washington County Circuit Judge Todd Martens, a jury convicted Bartelt of first-degree intentional homicide and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
On appeal, Bartelt conceded that he was not in custody at the start of his first interview. But he pointed out that during the interview one detective moved his chair closer, the tone of the questioning changed, and he was increasingly treated as a target of the investigation. Bartelt argued that once he confessed to the attack in the park, a reasonable person in his circumstances would have believed he was not free to leave the police station, thus transforming the interview into a custodial interrogation and requiring the detectives to cease all questioning once he asked for any attorney. Therefore, he argued, detectives violated his Fifth Amendment rights when they questioned him the next day about the murder.
However, the Court concluded that although admission of guilt to a serious crime “is a factor to consider in a custody analysis,” given the totality of circumstances Bartelt’s confession to the attack did not transform his status into one of custody.
The Court noted in particular that even after Bartelt’s confession the detectives spoke in a conversational tone and did not restrain his freedom of movement. Thus, as Bartelt was not in custody, his request for a lawyer did not need to be honored.
Bradley, joined in dissent by Justice Shirley Abrahamson, criticized the court for ignoring reality:
“I committed a serious, violent felony.” If suspects uttered these words, would law enforcement let them walk out of the station? Would a reasonable person feel free to simply get up and leave? Engaging in a work of fantasy, the majority says yes. Mired to the grips of reality, I say no.
Legal decisions regarding the “free to leave” standard do not reflect how reasonable people actually think and act, Bradley said.
She then continued: “Our jurisprudence should reflect reality. It should be based on true inclinations and thought processes rather than pushing the mythical ‘reasonable person’ even further from the bounds of the real world. The majority accomplishes the latter.”
Bradley further charged the majority with omitting relevant facts from its analysis, such as how Bartelt would have had to walk around one of the detectives to leave the room; how the detective’s movement of the chair blocked Bartelt’s exit, put the detective within arm’s reach, and changed the atmosphere in the room; and how the tone of questioning had turned coarse by the time of Bartelt’s confession, enhancing coercive pressure.
She noted that although the “free to leave” test requires assessment of objective facts rather than subjective views of those involved, one of the detectives testified that once Bartelt confessed, the detective believed Bartelt was not free to leave. “If even the interrogating detective testified that a suspect was not free to leave, would a reasonable suspect in such a position really think he could just get up and walk out?” Bradley wrote. “Only in a fantasy world would a suspect act in this manner.“
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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