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State v. Knight

June 8, 2005; as amended June 8, 2005


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is Reported at 369 N.J. Super. 424 (2004).


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The Court considers whether two trial courts properly denied defendant Shamsid Knight's separate motions to suppress his incriminating statements.

In the early hours of January 24, 2001, an acquaintance of Knight's watched him arrive at her house in a taxi. Frightened by Knight's conduct as he stood in front of the house, the acquaintance telephoned 911. When officers arrived, Knight was leaving in the taxi. While pursuing the taxi, the officers heard shots. After the taxi came to a final stop, the officers saw the bloody body of the taxi driver slumped over the wheel. Knight was positioned halfway between the driver's side and the passenger's side of the vehicle. He was holding a firearm and wearing only a T-shirt and an athletic supporter. The officers handcuffed him and placed him in a patrol car.

At the police station, Knight was given a hospital gown and a pair of socks. After Knight was advised of his Miranda rights, police questioned him. During the interrogation, Knight was given a soda and a bag of potato chips. Knight admitted killing the taxi driver and explained, in part, that he had removed his clothes to pretend that he had been robbed. After completing his statement, he was taken to a cell. Meanwhile, another detective noticed Knight's picture as a suspect in several bank robberies committed between December 2000 and January 2001. The detective visited Knight in his cell. Knight was again advised of his Miranda rights and after several hours agreed to give another statement. At some point, Knight was given a soda and a turkey sandwich.

Knight was indicted for first-degree murder and other related charges. In a separate indictment, Knight was charged with robbery. He moved to suppress both confessions.

A hearing was held on the motion to suppress Knight's statements about the murder. The investigator who had questioned Knight at the police station testified that he first saw Knight at the station dressed in a scrub suit or a hospital gown because he had not been fully clothed when he was arrested. He testified further that he spent hours talking with Knight because he kept changing his story, and that he gave Knight a soda and a bag of potato chips. The investigator contended that Knight never asked for a lawyer to be present. Knight, on the other hand, claimed that he asked to call his grandfather. Although Knight testified that the investigator was fair to him, he disagreed that he had been given a soda and chips. He claimed that it was the investigator who drank the soda and when the investigator left the room, Knight urinated into the can. He also claimed that he was afraid of the police. The court found that although the interrogation was lengthy, it was not continuous and not so overbearing as to break Knight's psychological will. It also found that Knight's lack of clothing was his own doing, and that he was given a garment to cover himself. The court concluded that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Knight knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights and voluntarily gave the statement.

A different court held a hearing on the robbery confessions. A detective testified about the circumstances of the confessions, including the Miranda warnings. Knight testified that, prior to his statement about the robberies, he had been questioned at length about the homicide and he contended that his entire statement about the robberies was a lie. He claimed that he felt threatened by the "body language" of the police, the detective threatened to frame him for the unrelated murder of his friend if he did not cooperate, and he was promised probation if he signed the robbery confessions. He complained that during questioning he was cold, handcuffed to a chair, forced to urinate in a soda can, and was not permitted to contact his grandfather. The court did not credit Knight's testimony and found that he gave a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights. In part, the court noted that Knight had some college education and was familiar with the criminal justice system as a result of two prior convictions.

Following a trial, Knight was convicted of murder and other related charges. Prior to sentencing, Knight agreed to plead guilty to the robbery indictment in exchange for the State recommending that his sentence run concurrent to the homicide sentence. In his plea, Knight confirmed the truth of his confession and did not reserve the right to challenge on appeal the court's finding that his confession to the robberies would be admissible at trial. In January 2003, Knight was sentenced for the murder conviction to an aggregate term of life imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. The same day, he was sentenced on the robbery plea to an aggregate term of twenty years, to run concurrent to the life sentence for the murder conviction.

Knight appealed both judgments of conviction. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that Knight's motions to suppress should have been granted. 369 N.J. Super. 424 (2004). The panel found that the murder interrogation was coercive, in part, because Knight was held in a patrol car on a cold night for at least two hours while wearing only a jockstrap and a T-shirt. The panel considered further the provision of the hospital gown, the length of time Knight was held incommunicado, the minimal amount of food he was given, the deprivation of sleep, and the persistent questioning. Disregarding the fact that Knight did not preserve the issue for appeal, the panel also concluded that Knight's statements regarding the robberies were tainted by the preceding murder interrogation and exacerbated by the continuation of the inherently coercive circumstances. The panel disagreed with the trial court's conclusion that Knight's age, education and familiarity with the criminal process were sufficient to render his waiver of rights and statements voluntary under the totality of circumstances, even if it were true that defendant was given breaks to eat, use the restroom, and smoke.

HELD: There was sufficient credible evidence to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Knight voluntarily waived his right against self-incrimination and freely gave to police his statement concerning the murder of the taxi driver, therefore the trial court properly denied Knight's motion to suppress. Furthermore, because Knight entered an unconditional guilty plea to robbery charges, he waived his right to challenge the admissibility of the robbery confessions and, as a result, that motion to suppress also was properly denied.

1. A defendant's custodial statement is admissible if it results from the voluntary, knowing, and intelligent waiver of his or her constitutional right to remain silent. The State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a confession was voluntary and was not made because the defendant's will was overborne. Here, Knight was consistently informed of his Miranda rights and waived them each time, therefore the key question is whether his waiver of the privilege and resulting statements were made voluntarily, as due process requires. In making that determination, the court looks at the totality of the circumstances, including the characteristics of the defendant and the nature of the interrogation. Relevant factors include age, education, intelligence, advice concerning constitutional rights, length of detention, whether the questioning was repeated and prolonged in nature, and whether physical punishment and mental exhaustion were involved. Courts also consider factors such as previous encounters with law enforcement and the period of time between the administration of the Miranda warnings and the volunteered statement. However, unlike physical abuse, use of a psychologically-oriented technique is not inherently coercive. (Pp. 15-18).

2. After reviewing case law, the Court finds that, under the totality of the circumstances test, there was sufficient credible evidence for the trial court to conclude that Knight's statement confessing to the homicide was constitutionally obtained. Knight has a high school diploma and attended college for at least one year. He was informed of his Miranda rights several times, he was familiar with the criminal justice system as a result of two prior convictions, he did not request an attorney, and he never testified to being too tired to be interviewed. Furthermore, police made no promises or threats to obtain Knight's statement, and he was given a soda, potato chips and an opportunity to use the restroom. Knight's failure to be fully clothed was his responsibility because he removed his clothes at the scene. Although Knight testified that he felt threatened, he did not claim that he was in fact threatened by the police at any time, therefore his subjective fear did not derive from a threat amounting to coercion under the Fifth Amendment. Finally, Knight acknowledged that the detective was fair to him. (Pp. 18-26).

3. In respect of the length of the interrogation relating to the shooting, the evidence was clear that it took place within, what might be termed, a daytime work shift. Here, where the entirety of the interrogation occurred within the daytime hours and concluded by 3:20 in the afternoon, the length of the interrogation alone is insufficient reason to invalidate Knight's confession. The lengthy interrogation during the daytime hours that led to Knight's statement resulted from his knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his rights against self-incrimination and was the product of his free will, not coercion. (Pp. 26-28).

4. By entering an unconditional guilty plea, Knight waived his right to challenge the admissibility of his robbery confessions. With three exceptions, a defendant who pleads guilty is prohibited from raising, on appeal, the contention that the State violated his constitutional rights prior to the plea. The three exceptions to this general rule are (1) motions for suppression of physical evidence on grounds of unlawful search or seizure; (2) denials of admission into a pretrial intervention program; and (3) situations in which a defendant enters a guilty plea reserving on the record the right to appeal from the adverse determination of any specific pretrial motion. Here, Knight's plea was unconditional and he did not preserve the issue of the admissibility of his statements. Moreover, at the plea hearing, Knight acknowledged that his statements were true. (Pp. 28-31).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division to consider defendant’s arguments not addressed in its decision.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace

Argued January 31, 2005

In this appeal we determine whether two trial courts properly denied defendant's separate motions to suppress his incriminating statements. Defendant made his initial statement to the police after being arrested for the fatal shooting of a taxi driver. A short while after his statement about the shooting, defendant admitted his involvement in several robberies. Defendant subsequently made separate motions to suppress those statements. In each case, the trial court denied the motion and found that defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily gave his statement. Defendant was tried for the shooting of the taxi driver and at the conclusion of his trial, a jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder and other offenses. Defendant then entered into a plea agreement with the State and pled guilty to several robberies. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed both convictions after concluding that defendant's confessions were involuntarily obtained. We granted certification and now hold that, under the totality of the circumstances, the trial court properly found that defendant's statement concerning the shooting was voluntary. We need not address the voluntariness of his confession to the robberies because defendant pled guilty to the robbery charges without reservation. R. 3:9-3(f).


We recite the pertinent facts developed at the hearings on the motions to suppress evidence, at the trial, and at the plea hearing. Between December 28, 2000, and January 23, 2001, defendant, Shamsid Knight, was involved in a series of robberies in Newark. On December 28, 2000, defendant robbed the Hudson City Savings Bank on Seventh Avenue; on January 4, 2001, he robbed the Valley National Bank on Ferry Street; on January 10, 2001, he robbed the Bank of New York at One Riverfront Plaza; and on January 23, 2001, he first robbed the West Market Laundromat while threatening the use of a firearm and then robbed the Gibraltar Savings Bank on South Orange Avenue. In all of those bank robberies, defendant gave the teller a note demanding money and, in the Valley National Bank robbery, defendant threatened the use of a shot gun.

Later on January 23, 2001, defendant was a passenger in a Lincoln Navigator taxi cab. Defendant had the taxi driver take him from a friend's house in Jersey City to New York City to buy drugs. When he returned to New Jersey in the early morning of January 24, 2001, defendant directed the taxi driver to stop at Kim Smith's residence in Newark. Upon arriving at the residence, defendant exited the cab and called for Smith's son to come outside. Smith, peering from the window, recognized defendant and was frightened by his conduct. She called 911 and reported the incident. Defendant returned to the Navigator.

Newark police officers Altemise Scott and Calvin Parkman responded to Smith's 911 call. When they arrived, they observed the Navigator pulling out of the driveway. The officers pursued the Navigator until it eventually pulled to the side of the road. Once the Navigator came to a halt, Officer Parkman exited his vehicle and approached, when suddenly a shot rang out from the passenger side of the vehicle. Both officers, thinking the shot was directed at them, returned fire. Another shot was fired inside the Navigator, and the vehicle pulled away, swerving down the road and striking the median. After traveling about three blocks, several more shots were fired from the direction of the Navigator. Finally, it stopped and again the officers approached the vehicle where they saw the bloody body of the driver slumped over the steering wheel. Defendant, who was positioned halfway between the driver's side and the passenger's side of the vehicle, was holding a firearm and was wearing only a short sleeve T-shirt and an athletic supporter. The officers instructed defendant to drop the weapon and get down on the ground. Defendant did so. The officers handcuffed defendant and placed him in the patrol car.

At approximately 4:30 a.m., Detective John Melillo arrived at the scene and observed defendant sitting in the patrol car. Defendant remained in the patrol car until he was taken to Newark Police Headquarters for interrogation. At the station, he was given a hospital gown and a pair of socks.

Homicide Investigator Richard Gregory arrived at the scene of the shooting around 5:10 a.m. By then defendant was no longer present. During the investigation, Gregory and Melillo noticed the victim's body was still in the Navigator. ...

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