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State v. Lutz

Decided: January 17, 1979.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Cumberland County.

Seidman and Botter. The opinion of the court was delivered by Seidman, J.A.D.


[165 NJSuper Page 281] Defendant was indicted for the murder of one Luis Eric Afanador. On the day of the trial, a combined preliminary inquiry under Evid. R. 8(1) and (3) was conducted by the trial judge to determine the admissibility of statements allegedly made by defendant at the police station, and of in-court and out-of-court identifications of defendant by the State's chief witness, Irma Ocasio. The hearing took place after the jury was selected, but before it was sworn. At the conclusion of the voir dire the trial judge determined that the statements and the identifications should be excluded. He then postponed the trial without date to enable the State to seek appellate review of the rulings. We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal. For reasons that follow, we reverse and remand the matter for trial.

With respect to the admissibility of statements alleged to have been made by defendant at the police station, the trial judge found a failure by the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was given fully the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), and on that basis declared inadmissible any statements made by defendant following the incomplete warnings. The State concedes that the Miranda warnings were not properly administered and that anything said by defendant thereafter would not be admissible.

The controversy is over the trial judge's further exclusion of statements made by defendant between the time of his arrival at the police station in the company of a police officer and the faulty warnings, essentially because, as the trial judge viewed defendant's state of mind subjectively, "going into the police station puts him in custody." The trial judge said that since he could not tell when defendant considered himself "deprived of freedom of action in a significant way," that is, "was it five minutes after he got in the police station, 20 minutes after he got in the police station, was it two minutes or was it going up the police station steps * * * therefore custody began upon arrival at the station."

The proofs adduced at the preliminary inquiry show the following facts. On January 31, 1976, shortly after 11:30 P.M., the body of Afanador, an apparent homicide victim, was discovered in his automobile in the parking lot of a department store in Vineland. The death (the cause of which does not appear in the record) was estimated by the medical examiner to have occurred approximately 12 hours earlier. Later that night, in the course of their investigation, the police interviewed decedent's brother, who indicated to them that defendant would know more about decedent than he himself because they were close friends. He "thought there was a [homosexual] relationship between them." A police officer, accompanied by three others, all in plain clothes, drove to defendant's home in an unmarked car, arriving there between 3:30 and 4:00 A.M. At this time, according to the officer,

no one was under suspicion. Their purpose was to "get some more background information to give our investigation some form of direction."

Upon arriving the police sounded the horn of their automobile. Defendant came out of his house within a few minutes, partially clad in night clothes. The officers entered the house and informed defendant that Afanador had been in an accident, whereupon defendant inquired if Mrs. Afanador was all right. Defendant agreed to return to the police station "to help in the investigation." After dressing he drove to the police station in his truck, accompanied by one of the officers. The others returned in the police car. Defendant and the officer conversed during the trip, but he still was not suspected "in any manner as being concerned with the homicide of Mr. Afanador."

At the police station, because he "was not a suspect," defendant was taken for questioning, not to the interrogation room, but to the detectives' room -- a large general office containing a number of desks where persons continually came in and went out. After interrogating defendant for about an hour and a half, the police learned of the estimated hour of the victim's death and it then became evident that defendant was placing himself in the company of decedent at a time after the homicide had apparently occurred. It was at this point that the police decided to advise defendant of his rights. We are satisfied that prior thereto the information that the police had concerning the alleged relationship between defendant and decedent and defendant's odd response when he was informed that his friend had been in an accident were not sufficient to inculpate him and make him a prime suspect.

The Miranda warnings are, of course, a prerequisite to custodial interrogation, by which is meant "questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Miranda v. Arizona, supra at 444, 86 S. Ct. at 1612. In their absence, statements made by a defendant, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, may not

be used by the prosecution. Id. The frequently encountered variable is what constitutes "custodial interrogation."

The recent case of Oregon v. Mathiason , 429 U.S. 492, 97 S. Ct. 711, 50 L. Ed. 2d 714 (1977), involved a defendant who had been convicted of first-degree burglary at a trial in which his confession was critical to the state's case. The Oregon Supreme Court had reversed the conviction, holding that although defendant had not been arrested or formally detained, the interrogation took place in a coercive environment of the sort to which Miranda was intended to apply. The United States Supreme Court reversed. It held that where defendant, suspected by the police as the culprit, came voluntarily to the police station and was informed that he was not under arrest, and after a half-hour interview left the police station, and there was no indication that the questioning took place in a context where defendant's freedom to depart was restricted in any way, defendant was not "in custody 'or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.'" 429 U.S. at 495, 97 S. Ct. at 714. The court emphasized that a non-custodial situation is not converted to one in which Miranda applies merely because the questioning takes place in a "coercive environment":

Cf. United States v. Long Soldier , 562 F.2d 601, 603, fn. 1, (8 Cir. 1977); Hancock v. Estelle , 558 F.2d 786 (5 Cir. 1977); Starkey v. ...

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