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State v. Williams


February 9, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 07-12-01947.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 20, 2009

Before Judges Reisner and Sapp-Peterson.

By leave granted, the State appeals from a trial court order dated May 28, 2008, granting defendant's motion to suppress. We affirm, substantially for the reasons stated in Judge DeVesa's oral opinion placed on the record on May 28, 2008.


Defendant Stanley Williams was suspected of submitting a forged doctor's note to justify absences from his job as a public school teacher. During an interrogation by a prosecutor's investigator and a New Brunswick police officer, defendant gave a statement incriminating himself. Williams challenged the admissibility of his statement, claiming that he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Miranda*fn1 rights.

The evidence at the Miranda hearing consisted of testimony from Prosecutor's Investigator Robert Torrisi, a videotape and a typed transcript of the police interrogation, and a signed Miranda card. According to Torrisi, he contacted defendant by telephone, and told him that he was "conducting an investigation and that his name came up and I needed to speak to him." He did not tell defendant that he was a suspect in the investigation. Torrisi scheduled an appointment for defendant to come to the Prosecutor's office, "assuring [defendant] that he was not going to be placed under arrest."

When defendant arrived, Torrisi and New Brunswick Police Detective Scott Gould brought defendant into a small windowless interview room and conducted a videotaped interrogation.*fn2 There was no dispute that the Miranda card had a line on which a defendant could acknowledge being advised of the Miranda rights, but it had no section in which a defendant could acknowledge waiving those rights. After the interview, defendant was permitted to leave. He was later issued a summons and was indicted for official misconduct, N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2; forgery, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-1a(3); and receiving stolen property, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7.

We set forth below the pertinent portion of the police interview in its entirety:

Q: Okay, this is Investigator Robert Torrisi with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office and Detective Scott Gould, New Brunswick Police Department. Prosecutor's Office number, um, investigation 070157. It's a case of Stanley Williams, a teacher at the Board of Ed, New Brunswick. It is Tuesday, August 7th, 11:43 a.m. and we're in the Prosecutor's Office, Interview Room on the 2nd floor. Do you have case number Scott or anything?

DET. GOULD: No, we'll punch it in here, you know. . .

Q: Okay.

DET. GOULD: I ain't worried that far as ah (Inaudible).

Q: Alright Mr. Williams, you can have a seat over here.

A: Interrogation Room, ha?

Q: Yeah.

A: That's what this is?

DET. GOULD: Honestly, it's an Interview Room.

A: Okay.


Q: So, um, you're probably wondering why you're here?

A: Yeah.

Q: Okay, alright.

A: And would be wondering.

Q: Alright, um, like I said your name came up in an investigation that we're conducting and we have some questions for ya and we want to try to. . . .what were, our goal here is to get the truth out the situation and once we feel comfortable we have the truth and everything then I'm sure you'll understand and you'll feel a lot more comfortable with everything and we'll be ready to move on.

A: Okay.

Q: Alright. First thing we have to do as a standard procedure is read you your Miranda warnings. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a Court of Law.

A: Sound like I'm being arrested then.

Q: You're not being arrested sir. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have a lawyer present with you while you are being questioned. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish one. You can decide to exercise these rights at any time. Um, again this is just standard.

A: Um, (inaudible) was. I mean you call me down here and, and read me my rights is not standard to me.

Q: Okay.

A: I mean you, you ask. . . .

Q: Take a look at. . . .

A: I, I believe, I can re . . . I can read, I understand what you're saying but. . . .

Q: On the back is an acknowledgement and once we get this out of the way we'll start talking and we'll explain to you exactly why you're here.

A: You're asking me to sign that?

Q: Well it, it's asking for your signature, yes.

A: Oh, no. Why would I sign that?

DET. GOULD: This is your rights so basically you're a educated man, you're a teacher.

A: Yes.

DET. GOULD: These are your rights, make sure you understand it, you comprehend what we just told you what your rights are?

A: Okay, I comprehend that but. . .

Q: When you sign this, all's that saying is that you understand.

DET. GOULD: And that you were given your rights so nobody can at a later date can't say Mr. Williams wasn't given his rights, he didn't understand them. And then when [they're] saying that they incriminated some guy. . .

A: This is crazy. . . .

Q: Take a look at that acknowled. . .

A: I ain't gonna look at.

Q: Okay.

A: This whole thing is crazy.

DET. GOULD: Everybody, everybody have procedures, you know, you have procedures even in school.

A: Yeah, but not like . . . I mean I've been downtown before and I ain't never been read my rights.

Q: Um, do you have any idea why you're here Mr. Williams?

A: No.

Q: No.

A: No, you asked me that.

Q: Okay.

A: Why am I here?

Q: Alright.

A: I'm familiar with that.

Q: Okay.

DET. GOULD: You know what is it is?

A: Yeah, it's a doctor's note I, I turned into the Board of Education. I got it from a guy downtown Newark who, um, write pads. I mean, you know, anything you need, they'll [write] it for you. I didn't go to a doctor. Um, I didn't forge anything on here but I did turn it in. Um, the date on there is wrong, It's ah, it's ah year September 7th which is not here yet.

Q: Right.

A: So I realize that after I turned it in, but had turned it in already.

Q: Okay.

A: And um being honest I got it . . . I didn't go to that doctor. I don't know who that doctor is. Ah, he had a young lady write that out for me, and I paid him twenty five dollars downtown Newark.

After the Miranda hearing, Judge DeVesa concluded that the State had not met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant made a knowing, intelligent and, therefore, voluntary, Miranda waiver. He found that Torrisi unfairly downplayed the significance of the Miranda rights and the waiver:

[W]hile Investigator [Torrisi] did not in any way employ any inappropriate trickery . . . [t]here's no question that he did downplay the significance of the Miranda Warnings by taking the position that they were merely . . . routine, standard procedure and . . . he went on to even characterize the acknowledgment of the forms that it's simply something that the defendant had to acknowledge in order to allow them to move onto further discussion and to allow the investigators to tell the defendant why he was being questioned.

Judge DeVesa also considered the complete absence of any express written or oral waiver of defendant's Miranda rights:

The specific form that was used does not contain a waiver, and . . . as we learned from State v. Freedman where it was held that there was a waiver even though the defendant did not expressly waive based upon the totality of circumstances, I think in this particular case the wording on the form is very significant. Again, I recognize that there's no required form, and there's no approved form, but in this case the lack of an expressed waiver on the form, and the lack of an expressed waiver by the defendant verbally . . . in my mind does contribute to a reasonable doubt that he was waiving his rights knowingly and intelligently, particularly since in the conversation just before he acknowledges the form by signing it he's raising questions about not wanting to sign the form. He's being convinced to sign the form simply by having the investigators characterize it as a routine procedure and, again, a procedure that would allow them to talk further.

In addition, the judge considered the fact that, after apparently lulling defendant into believing that the Miranda warnings were a mere formality, the investigator went immediately into an interrogation about the offense:

And then we get into the actual beginning of the incriminating statements and there's almost no separation here. I mean sometimes our courts have held that after there is some inappropriate warning . . . there's . . . enough of a gap and another warning or something . . . [that] would make a waiver valid. But here we move immediately from Detectives telling the defendant that all he needs to do is sign the form and then they'll talk to him and tell him why he's here, and then after he does that, simply the forged note or forged prescription is simply stuck in front of him and he blurts out what it's all about.

Under all of these circumstances I am not convinced that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant voluntarily, and intentionally, and knowingly waived his rights, and waived his right to remain silent.


Our review of the trial court's decision is limited and deferential:

We review a trial court's findings as to the admissibility of a defendant's confession under the "sufficient credible evidence" standard. We will only reverse these findings if they are not supported by substantial credible evidence. Under this standard of review, it is "improper for the Appellate Division to engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if it were the court of first instance." We are "not permitted to 'weigh the evidence, assess the credibility of witnesses, or make conclusions about the evidence.'" Our review is restricted to assessing "'whether the findings made [by the trial court] could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record.'"

[State v. Elkwisni, 384 N.J. Super. 351, 366 (App. Div. 2006)(citations omitted), aff'd, 190 N.J. 169 (2007).]

After reviewing the record, including watching the video, we find no basis to disturb Judge DeVesa's factual findings, which are supported by substantial credible evidence, Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974), or his legal conclusions based on those facts.

It is fundamental that Miranda requires the State to prove not only that defendant was advised of the rights afforded by Miranda, but that defendant waived those rights. Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. at 478-79, 86 S.Ct. at 1630, 16 L. Ed 2d at 726. The State has the burden of proving that a defendant's waiver of Miranda rights "'was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary in light of all the circumstances.'" State v. A.G.D., 178 N.J. 56, 67 (2003)(quoting State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304, 313 (2000)). In A.G.D., the Court emphasized that police may not withhold essential information from a defendant in connection with giving the Miranda warnings. There, the Court held that "[t]he government's failure to inform a suspect that a criminal complaint or arrest warrant has been filed or issued deprives that person of information indispensable to a knowing and intelligent waiver of rights." A.G.D., supra, 178 N.J. at 68.

Further, as the California Supreme Court indicated in People v. Musselwhite, 954 P.2d 475, 487 (Cal. 1998):

We agree with the proposition that evidence of police efforts to trivialize the rights accorded suspects by the Miranda decision--by 'playing down,' for example, or minimizing their legal significance--may under some circumstances suggest a species of prohibited trickery and weighs against a finding that the suspect's waiver was knowing, informed, and intelligent.

We conclude that is essentially what occurred here. It is readily inferrable from their dialogue with defendant that the officers misrepresented the significance of the Miranda warnings. Their discussion of the Miranda form was designed to distract defendant's attention from the fact that he was being asked to give up his constitutional right to remain silent, and to instead convince him that he was going through a mere bureaucratic formality so that the police could tell him why he was being questioned.

Further, defendant was never asked if he was willing to waive his Miranda rights, and never stated that he was waiving those rights. The officers plainly inferred that defendant had to talk to them or they would not tell him what he was accused of, despite the fact that he was in custody. Instead of obtaining a voluntary, knowing and intelligent waiver before beginning their interrogation, they obtained defendant's signature on what they represented was a mere formality, and proceeded immediately to confront him with a central piece of evidence in the case.

We recognize that no particular form of waiver is required, see State v. Warmbrun, 277 N.J. Super. 51, 62-64 (App. Div. 1994), certif. denied, 140 N.J. 277 (1995), and that "a court may find an intelligent and understanding rejection of counsel in situations where the defendant did not expressly state as much." North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 373 n.4, 99 S. Ct. 1755, 1757 n.4, 60 L.Ed. 2d 286, 292 n.4 (1979). However, it remains the State's burden to prove waiver beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Knight, 183 N.J. 449, 462 (2005); State v. Kelly, 61 N.J. 283, 294 (1972). In light of all the facts found by the trial judge, we agree that in this case the State did not carry its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights.


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