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A Better Partnership
February 14, 2013

MSC Opinion: Police officer's comment expressly directed to 17-year-old in custody did not amount to "interrogation" in violation of Miranda

Defendant allegedly pulled out a gun during a drug buy. Defendant and the victim allegedly struggled over the gun, which went off, and the victim was killed. Defendant was charged with first-degree felony murder, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. In People v. White, in a 3-2 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court's decision to suppress defendant's confession, which was given to a police officer while in custody and after defendant invoked his right to remain silent. The majority, in an opinion by Justice Markman, joined by Chief Justice Young and Justice Zahra, agreed with the Court of Appeals that defendant was not subjected to "interrogation" in violation of Miranda, or specifically, "express questioning or its functional equivalent" under Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980). The majority determined that the officer's comment that "I hope that the gun is in a place where nobody can get a hold of it and nobody else can get hurt by it" was not a question, and that the officer's addition of the words "okay" and "all right" at the end of his comment did not transform it into a question. Further, the majority determined that defendant was not subjected to the "functional equivalent" of express questioning, because there was nothing in the record to suggest that the officer was aware that defendant was "peculiarly susceptible to an appeal to his conscience" or "unusually disoriented or upset at the time of his arrest." The majority noted that the officer's single remark regarding the gun was not a "lengthy harangue," nor was it "particularly evocative."

In a dissenting opinion, assuming arguendo that defendant was not subjected to express questioning, Justice Cavanagh would conclude that defendant was improperly subjected to the "functional equivalent" of interrogation under Innis. Justice Cavanagh argued that the officer should have known that his comments, which were expressly directed to defendant, were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. Justice Cavanagh noted that the nature of the officer's comments, which played to the likelihood that defendant would respond to an expression of concern for the safety of others, also had the characteristics of a "psychological ploy" that exerted a "compelling influence" on defendant. Justice Cavanagh also recognized that defendant's personal characteristics, such as the fact that defendant was 17 years old when arrested and that he had no prior criminal convictions, increased the likelihood that defendant would perceive the officer's comments as requiring a response.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Mary Beth Kelly contended that the officer engaged in the "functional equivalent" of express questioning by exploiting defendant's youth, and that the officer should have known that such conduct would likely elicit an incriminating response. Justice Kelly argued that defendant's minor age made him vulnerable and especially susceptible to the officer's subtle compulsive techniques, which included references to violence, attempts to earn defendant's trust, and appeals to defendant's conscience.

Justice McCormack took no part in the decision of this case.

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