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State v. O'Neill

December 20, 2007


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 388 N.J. Super. 135 (2006).


(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 issue before the Supreme Court is whether the "question-first, warn-later" interrogation procedure used by the police in this case violated Michael O'Neill's state law privilege against self-incrimination.

Luis Tenezaca, a Union City cab driver, was shot to death in his vehicle during the early morning hours of April 26, 2003. On April 28, 2003, Homicide Unit Detectives Luster and Bava, from the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office, arrived at the Harrison Police Department to question O'Neill, who had been arrested on a warrant that was unrelated to the Tenezaca homicide. Luster and Bava first questioned O'Neill through the bars of the department's holding cell. Without giving O'Neill his Miranda rights, they asked him questions concerning his activities between 11 p.m. on April 25 and 3 a.m. on April 26. Based on O'Neill's responses after twenty minutes of questioning, the detectives moved him from the holding cell to the patrol commander's office. There the interrogation continued -- without Miranda warnings having been given -- for an additional hour and fifteen minutes.

Once O'Neill had stated that he intended to lure a cab driver to a location where two others would rob him, the detectives administered Miranda warnings. O'Neill read a standard Miranda form listing his rights and signed the waiver provision. At that point, the detectives picked up where they left off with the interrogation. Approximately twenty-five minutes later, O'Neill gave a taped statement at the request of the detectives. He repeated many of the same details he had provided before being given the Miranda warnings. The taped questioning ended at 5:50 p.m.

After further questioning, the detectives took O'Neill to the Prosecutor's Office, where he was placed in a holding cell. Having obtained what appeared to be relevant evidence in the homicide relating to O'Neill's participation, the detectives confronted him with it. O'Neill then confessed. Moved to an interview room, O'Neill was questioned for an additional hour and a half before a second taped statement was taken. In the second statement, O'Neill provided additional information in an account that was at variance with his earlier statements.

Prior to trial, O'Neill moved to suppress his statements to the detectives. The trial court held that O'Neill had knowingly and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and admitted the statements made after that waiver.

At trial, the State produced testimony and evidence connecting O'Neill to the Tenezaca killing. O'Neill testified in his own defense. His trial testimony, for the most part, was consistent with his second taped session and a letter that he had written to his then girlfriend. O'Neill claimed that his gun accidentally discharged when Tenezaca accelerated the cab to keep O'Neill from leaving without paying his fare.

The jury convicted O'Neill of felony murder, first-degree robbery, first-degree aggravated manslaughter, and weapons offenses. The trial court sentenced him to a thirty-year term without parole eligibility. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed O'Neill's convictions and sentence.

The Court granted Michael O'Neill's petition for certification.

HELD: As a matter of state law, when Miranda warnings are given after a custodial interrogation has already produced incriminating statements, the admissibility of post-warning statements will turn on whether the warnings functioned effectively in providing the defendant the ability to exercise his state law privilege against self-incrimination.

1. One of the most fundamental rights protected by both the Federal Constitution and state law is the right against self-incrimination. In Miranda, the United States Supreme Court decreed that a person who is subjected to police interrogation while in custody at the police station or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way must be adequately and effectively apprised of his rights. The Court further held that after a person has been advised of his rights and been given an opportunity to exercise them, he then may knowingly and intelligently waive them and agree to answer questions or make a statement. The Miranda warnings play an important role in enhancing and safeguarding our state law privilege, and Miranda is a strong force in the development of our decisional law. (pp. 21-23)

2. Defendant was "in custody" for Miranda purposes. At the very least, he was a suspect in a potential gun charge and a person of interest in a murder investigation. (pp. 23-26)

3. Two United States Supreme Court cases are particularly important to the analysis of the issues in this matter. In a 1985 case, Oregon v. Elstad, the Court held that a suspect who "respond[s] to unwarned yet uncoercive questioning is not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he has been given the requisite Miranda warnings." (pp. 26-28)

4. The meaning and application of Elstad deeply divided the United States Supreme Court in Missouri v. Seibert in 2004. That case involved a police protocol that instructed officers to withhold Miranda warnings "until [an] interrogation has produced a confession." A plurality of four members of the Court concluded that in the circumstances presented in Seibert, Miranda warnings delivered "midstream" were not effective enough to accomplish their object, rendering the post-warning confessions inadmissible. Justice Kennedy provided the fifth vote in the case, but on a different rationale. He concluded that the "two-step interrogation technique was used in a calculating way to undermine the Miranda warning." In dissent, four members of the Court concluded that the plurality had "devoured" the analysis of Elstad. (pp. 28-33)

5. The opinions in Seibert have sown confusion in federal and state courts that have attempted to divine the governing standard that applies in successive interrogation cases involving warned and unwarned confessions. To give guidance both to courts and law enforcement agencies within our jurisdiction, the Court has decided to turn to our state law privilege against self-incrimination to decide the issue. The Court has interpreted our state law privilege to grant broader rights than those available under the Fifth Amendment. Under our state law privilege, the Court has held that police officers conducting a custodial interrogation cannot withhold essential information that is necessary for the exercise of the privilege. Under the circumstances, where the detectives did not advise defendant that his admissions during the unwarned interrogation could not be used against him, it would have been perfectly reasonable for defendant to deduce that he had already incriminated himself and that silence was no longer an option. (pp. 28-41)

6. Ultimately, the question is whether the belated giving of the Miranda warnings will serve as a firewall between the warned and unwarned statements. The proper standard under New Jersey law focuses on whether a suspect knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his rights before speaking to the police. That approach will avoid the unworkable standard of delving into a police officer's state of mind, and keep the spotlight on the focal issue --whether the defendant properly waived his rights. In making that determination, courts should consider all relevant factors, including:

1. The extent of questioning and the nature of any admissions made by defendant before being informed of his Miranda rights;

2. The proximity in time and place between the pre- and post-warning questioning;

3. Whether the same law enforcement officers conducted both the unwarned and warned interrogations;

4. Whether the officers informed defendant that his pre-warning statements could not be used against him; and

5. The degree to which the post-warning questioning is a continuation of the pre-warning questioning.

The factual circumstances in each case will determine the appropriate weight to be accorded any factor or group of factors. Under the formula, however, great weight should be given if the police informed a suspect that his admissions made prior to being given the Miranda warnings could not be used against him. Providing that information would strongly suggest that the defendant made any post-warning incriminating statements knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. The Court emphasizes that it is not pronouncing a bright-line rule. In two-step interrogation cases, courts must view the totality of the circumstances in light of the relevant factors before determining whether the Miranda warnings have been rendered ineffective. (pp. 41-43)

7. In the circumstances presented here, considering all of the relevant factors, it is clear that the Miranda warnings could not have functioned effectively. The two-step interrogation technique had the likely effect of undermining both defendant's ability to assert his right to remain silent and this ability to waive that right properly. Given the centrality of defendant's incriminating statements to the State's case, the Court cannot conclude that the admission of defendant's statements were harmless error. Therefore, his convictions and sentence must be reversed and the matter remanded to the Law Division for a new trial consistent with this opinion. (pp. 43-48)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for a new trial.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued September 10, 2007

Forty years after Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed. 2d 694 (1966), no rule of law is better understood by law enforcement officers than the duty to advise a suspect subject to custodial interrogation of his right to remain silent and his right to the assistance of counsel.*fn1

Indeed, the term "Miranda rights" is now so familiar that it is part of our popular vocabulary and culture. Significantly, Miranda's guiding principles inform New Jersey's privilege against self-incrimination.

In this case, two homicide detectives subjected defendant Michael A. O'Neill to a ninety-five minute interrogation while he was in official custody, eliciting from him incriminating statements that linked him to the killing of Luis Tenezaca, a taxi cab driver. Only then, for the first time, did the detectives advise defendant of his Miranda rights. Without any significant break, the detectives resumed the interrogation, questioning the nineteen-year-old defendant for nearly five more hours, taking two taped statements, which, singly and together, directly connected him to the shooting death of the cab driver.

At defendant's murder trial, the State only sought to admit defendant's statements made after the initial ninety-five minute unwarned interrogation. The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress statements he made after receiving the Miranda warnings. The prosecution used defendant's own words --his statements to the detectives -- to convict him of felony murder and related offenses. The Appellate Division upheld those convictions, finding that defendant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his Miranda rights on the heels of the damning admissions elicited from him during the initial ninety-five minute unwarned interrogation.

Because of the unsettled state of federal law construing the two-stage interrogation technique under the Fifth Amendment, and because our state law against self-incrimination accords New Jersey's citizens broader protection than afforded under the Federal Constitution, we will decide this issue on state law grounds. We now conclude that the "question-first, warn-later" interrogation procedure in this case violated defendant's state law privilege against self-incrimination. That privilege was rendered illusory because the detectives exploited defendant's admissions from the initial unwarned questioning, undermining his ability to knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waive the Miranda rights later given to him. We therefore are compelled to suppress defendant's post-warning statements, reverse his convictions, and order a new trial.



The trial court conducted a pre-trial hearing to determine the admissibility of defendant's statements to Union City Police Detective Michelle Luster and Detective Robert Bava of the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office.*fn2 Detective Luster was the only witness to testify at that hearing.

Unwarned Statement

At the time of Tenezaca's killing in the early morning hours of April 26, 2003, Detective Luster was assigned to the Hudson County Prosecutor's Homicide Unit. On April 28, 2003, at approximately 3:10 p.m., she and Detective Bava arrived at the Harrison Police Department to question defendant O'Neill, who had been arrested on an outstanding warrant unrelated to the Tenezaca homicide. The two detectives had information that defendant possessed a handgun within the timeframe of that homicide.

Detectives Luster and Bava identified themselves to defendant, who was in a holding cell, and questioned him through the bars. Without informing defendant of his Miranda rights, they asked him to account for his whereabouts for the period between 11 p.m. on April 25 and 3 a.m. on April 26. Defendant responded that he had been baby-sitting for a friend, Jamie Noack, who lived in Harrison. When the detectives told him that they intended to verify that information, he recanted, stating that he had left the Noack house at approximately 11 p.m. and had walked around the neighborhood for the next two hours. Defendant denied that he had been in the area of the Solda Espana bar in Kearny where the victim had picked up his last fare. However, when the detectives displayed his photograph to him and asked whether anyone would place him in the bar once shown that photograph, defendant recanted again, admitting, "Well, yes, I did go there to meet a friend."

Based on those answers, twenty minutes into the interview, the detectives moved defendant from his cell to the patrol commander's office. There, the interrogation continued, and still no Miranda warnings were given. During the next hour and fifteen minutes, defendant told the detectives that, in fact, he had gone to the Solda Espana bar to purchase marijuana from a friend he knew only as "V". While at the bar, V, who was accompanied by a Hispanic male, directed defendant to take the next available cab to the intersection of Seeley and Columbia Avenues in Kearny. It was defendant's understanding that V and his friend ...

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