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Yarborough v. Alvarado

June 01, 2004

MICHAEL YARBOROUGH, WARDEN, PETITIONER
v.
MICHAEL ALVARADO



On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit Court Below: 316 F. 3d 841

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Argued March 1, 2004

Decided June 1, 2004

Respondent Alvarado helped Paul Soto try to steal a truck, leading to the death of the truck's owner. Alvarado was called in for an interview with Los Angeles detective Comstock. Alvarado was 17 years old at the time, and his parents brought him to the station and waited in the lobby during the interview. Comstock took Alvarado to a small room where only the two of them were present. The interview lasted about two hours, and Alvarado was not given a warning under Miranda v. Arizona, 334 U. S. 436. Although he at first denied being present at the shooting, Alvarado slowly began to change his story, finally admitting that he had helped Soto try to steal the victim's truck and to hide the gun after the murder. Comstock twice asked Alvarado if he needed a break and, when the interview was over, returned him to his parents, who drove him home. After California charged Alvarado with murder and attempted robbery, the trial court denied his motion to suppress his interview statements on Miranda grounds. In affirming Alvarado's conviction, the District Court of Appeal (hereinafter state court) ruled that a Miranda warning was not required because Alvarado had not been in custody during the interview under the test articulated in Thompson v. Keohane, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kennedy

541 U. S. ____ (2004)

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, a federal court can grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person held pursuant to a state-court judgment if the state-court adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a state court unreasonably applied clearly established law when it held that the respondent was not in custody for Miranda purposes. Alvarado v. Hickman, 316 F. 3d 841 (2002). We disagree and reverse.

I.

Paul Soto and respondent Michael Alvarado attempted to steal a truck in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Santa Fe Springs, California. Soto and Alvarado were part of a larger group of teenagers at the mall that night. Soto decided to steal the truck, and Alvarado agreed to help. Soto pulled out a .357 Magnum and approached the driver, Francisco Castaneda, who was standing near the truck emptying trash into a dumpster. Soto demanded money and the ignition keys from Castaneda. Alvarado, then five months short of his 18th birthday, approached the passenger side door of the truck and crouched down. When Castaneda refused to comply with Soto's demands, Soto shot Castaneda, killing him. Alvarado then helped hide Soto's gun.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's detective Cheryl Comstock led the investigation into the circumstances of Castaneda's death. About a month after the shooting, Comstock left word at Alvarado's house and also contacted Alvarado's mother at work with the message that she wished to speak with Alvarado. Alvarado's parents brought him to the Pico Rivera Sheriff's Station to be interviewed around lunchtime. They waited in the lobby while Alvarado went with Comstock to be interviewed. Alvarado contends that his parents asked to be present during the interview but were rebuffed.

Comstock brought Alvarado to a small interview room and began interviewing him at about 12:30 p.m. The interview lasted about two hours, and was recorded by Comstock with Alvarado's knowledge. Only Comstock and Alvarado were present. Alvarado was not given a warning under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1965). Comstock began the interview by asking Alvarado to recount the events on the night of the shooting. On that night, Alvarado explained, he had been drinking alcohol at a friend's house with some other friends and acquaintances. After a few hours, part of the group went home and the rest walked to a nearby mall to use its public telephones. In Alvarado's initial telling, that was the end of it. The group went back to the friend's home and "just went to bed." App. 101.

Unpersuaded, Comstock pressed on:

"Q. Okay. We did real good up until this point and everything you've said it's pretty accurate till this point, except for you left out the shooting.

"A. The shooting?

"Q. Uh huh, the shooting.

"A. Well I had never seen no shooting.

"Q. Well I'm afraid you did.

"A. I had never seen no shooting.

"Q. Well I beg to differ with you. I've been told quite the opposite and we have witnesses that are saying quite the opposite.

"A. That I had seen the shooting?

"Q. So why don't you take a deep breath, like I told you before, the very best thing is to be honest... . You can't have that many people get involved in a murder and expect that some of them aren't going to tell the truth, okay? Now granted if it was maybe one person, you might be able to keep your fingers crossed and say, god I hope he doesn't tell the truth, but the problem is is that they have to tell the truth, okay? Now all I'm simply doing is giving you the opportunity to tell the truth and when we got that many people telling a story and all of a sudden you tell something way far fetched different." Id., at 101-102 (punctuation added).

At this point, Alvarado slowly began to change his story. First he acknowledged being present when the carjacking occurred but claimed that he did not know what happened or who had a gun. When he hesitated to say more, Comstock tried to encourage Alvarado to discuss what happened by appealing to his sense of honesty and the need to bring the man who shot Castaneda to justice. See, e.g., id., at 106 ("[W]hat I'm looking for is to see if you'll tell the truth"); id., at 105-106 ("I know it's very difficult when it comes time to `drop the dime' on somebody[,] ... [but] if that had been your parent, your mother, or your brother, or your sister, you would darn well want [the killer] to go to jail `cause no one has the right to take someone's life like that ..."). Alvarado then admitted he had helped the other man try to steal the truck by standing near the passenger side door. Next he admitted that the other man was Paul Soto, that he knew Soto was armed, and that he had helped hide the gun after the murder. Alvarado explained that he had expected Soto to scare the driver with the gun, but that he did not expect Soto to kill anyone. Id., at 127. Toward the end of the interview, Comstock twice asked Alvarado if he needed to take a break. Alvarado declined. When the interview was over, Comstock returned with Alvarado to the lobby of the sheriff's station where his parents were waiting. Alvarado's father drove him home.

A few months later, the State of California charged Soto and Alvarado with first-degree murder and attempted robbery. Citing Miranda, supra, Alvarado moved to suppress his statements from the Comstock interview. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the interview was non-custodial. App. 196. Alvarado and Soto were tried together, and Alvarado testified in his own defense. He offered an innocent explanation for his conduct, testifying that he happened to be standing in the parking lot of the mall when a gun went off nearby. The government's cross-examination relied on Alvarado's statement to Comstock. Alvarado admitted having made some of the statements but denied others. When Alvarado denied particular statements, the prosecution countered by playing excerpts from the audio recording of the interview.

During cross-examination, Alvarado agreed that the interview with Comstock "was a pretty friendly conversation," id., at 438, that there was "sort of a free flow between [Alvarado] and Detective Comstock," id., at 439, and that Alvarado did not "feel coerced or threatened in any way" during the interview, ibid. The jury convicted Soto and Alvarado of first-degree murder and attempted robbery. The trial judge later reduced Alvarado's conviction to second-degree murder for his comparatively minor role in the offense. The judge sentenced Soto to life in prison and Alvarado to 15-years-to-life.

On direct appeal, the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal (hereinafter state court) affirmed. People v. Soto, 74 Cal. App. 4th 1099, 88 Cal. Rptr. 688 (1999) (unpublished in relevant part). The state court rejected Alvarado's contention that his statements to Comstock should have been excluded at trial because no Miranda warnings were given. The court ruled Alvarado had not been in custody during the interview, so no warning was required. The state court relied upon the custody test articulated in Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U. S. 99, 112 (1995), which requires a court to consider the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and then determine whether a reasonable person would have felt at liberty to leave. The state court reviewed the facts of the Comstock interview and concluded Alvarado was not in custody. App. to Pet. ...


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