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State of New Jersey v. Damu Alston

January 20, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
DAMU ALSTON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens

SYLLABUS

(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).

State of New Jersey v. Damu Alston

(A-72-09)

Argued September 13, 2010 -- Decided January 20, 2011

HOENS, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal requires the Court to consider whether statements made by defendant immediately after he signed a waiver of his rights were an ambiguous assertion of his right to counsel and whether a detective's questions in response constituted a permissible clarification.

On January 8, 2008, Damu Alston was arrested by Newark police pursuant to an arrest warrant as a result of an investigation into the September 2, 2007 murder of Dana Grimsley. At the Newark Police Station, Essex County Detective Christopher Smith and Newark Police Department Detective Murad Muhammad interviewed Alston. The entire interview was tape recorded. The parties stipulated to a transcript of the interview revealing that Alston was fully informed of all of his Miranda rights, and that he repeatedly responded that he understood each of his rights. Alston waived his rights by signing the Miranda waiver form in the presence of the two detectives.

The transcript of the interview reveals that immediately after acknowledging that he understood and was waiving his rights, defendant engaged in a conversation with the two detectives. Of particular relevance, defendant inquired: "Should I not have a lawyer in here with me?" Defendant also asked: "Sir, if I did want a lawyer in here with me how would I be able to get one in here with me?" Detective Muhammad responded "that's on you" and told defendant that the questioning would stop if he wanted a lawyer. Defendant then stated: "I'm already waist-deep, about to drown, why?" Detective Muhammad told defendant that he had to answer "yes or no," to which defendant responded that he had already answered. Detective Muhammad then stated: "Do you want a lawyer? No -- that's what you're saying?" Defendant answered: "When I go to court, I guess." Finally, Detective Smith asked defendant if he wanted "to continue answering questions -- answering our questions?" Defendant answered: "Sure. Why not?"

Defendant then confessed that he shot the victim to "get away from him and get him off me." The entire interview, including the recitation of rights, the above-quoted discussion, and defendant's confession, took twenty-four minutes and forty-one seconds.

After he was indicted for first-degree murder, second-degree possession of weapons for an unlawful purpose, and third-degree unlawful possession of weapons, defendant moved to suppress his confession. Finding that defendant's question was an equivocal assertion of his right to counsel, the motion court concluded that the detective's response might have been misunderstood to mean that it was defendant's obligation to secure counsel on his own. Finding that the detective's responses to defendant amounted to inconsistent and inaccurate information about his rights, the court concluded that it could not find that defendant had knowingly waived his right to counsel and granted his motion to suppress.

The Appellate Division granted the State's application for leave to appeal, and reversed the motion court's suppression order. In an unpublished opinion, the appellate panel acknowledged that when a defendant makes an unambiguous request for counsel, the police are obligated to honor it scrupulously. However, the panel also recognized that if the words used by a suspect are ambiguous, the police may ask questions to clarify whether or not the suspect is indeed asserting one of his or her rights. The panel concluded that in this case defendant's statements were ambiguous, and that the detective narrowly tailored his responses in an effort to elicit whether defendant wanted the interview to cease or continue. The Appellate Division concluded that defendant's responses constituted a waiver of his rights, and reversed the order suppressing his confession.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal and granted leave to the Attorney General to participate as an amicus curiae.

HELD: Defendant's statements after he waived his right to counsel, when clarified, were not an assertion of his right to counsel, and the police officer's questions did not exceed the scope of permissible clarification.

1. The United States Supreme Court set forth the framework for this Court's analysis in Miranda, establishing the now-familiar warnings designed to safeguard the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of the privilege against self-incrimination. Once a request for counsel has been made, an interrogation may not continue until either counsel is made available or the suspect initiates further communication sufficient to waive the right to counsel. The United Sates Supreme Court has drawn a strict line to identify what will qualify as a request for counsel. In 1994, the Court adopted the "threshold standard of clarity" approach, pursuant to which the Fifth Amendment only requires police to stop questioning if the suspect makes a request for counsel that is unambiguous or unequivocal. See Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). Using that approach, if a suspect makes a statement that is ambiguous, or that merely "might" be an invocation of the right to counsel, the Court permits officers to continue their questioning. The Court further noted that it would be "good police practice" for the officers to seek clarification. By the time the United States Supreme Court announced its bright line test in Davis, this Court had already taken a different approach. This Court set the threshold at whether a suspect's statement "arguably" amounted to an assertion of Miranda rights, and held that in those circumstances, when a suspect's words are ambiguous, the officer must clarify with the suspect in order to correctly interpret the statement. In permitting questions that are meant to clarify whether a Miranda right has been invoked, this Court has reasoned that "questioning [of that type] is not considered 'interrogation' under Miranda, because it is not intended to 'elicit an incriminating response from the suspect.'" State v. Johnson, 120 N.J. 263, 283 (1990). Appellate Division decisions illustrate that, if the words amount to even an ambiguous request for counsel, the questioning must cease, although clarification is permitted; if the statements are so ambiguous that they cannot be understood to be the assertion of a right, clarification is not only permitted but needed. (Pp. 7-16)

2. As the United States Supreme Court has commented, the reality is that suspects do not, and cannot be expected to, "speak with the discrimination of an Oxford don." Davis, supra, 512 U.S. at 459. The record in this case, and in particular the inflections and tone revealed by the audio tape recording, demonstrate that defendant's statements to the police were not ambiguous assertions of his right to counsel. In the final analysis, defendant's understanding of his rights was clear and complete; the words he chose were not an ambiguous assertion of any of those rights but instead were a series of requests for advice from the detective. The words the detective used in an effort to clarify whether defendant was attempting to assert any of his rights were neither inaccurate nor misleading. The Court therefore concludes, as did the Appellate Division, that defendant's waiver of his rights was knowing, voluntary and intelligent. (Pp. 16-20)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO, and JUDGE STERN (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion.

Argued September 13, 2010

JUSTICE HOENS delivered the opinion of the Court. Defendant Damu Alston was arrested as part of a murder investigation and taken to police headquarters for questioning. He was advised of his rights, which he acknowledged both orally and in writing that he understood, and he then waived all of his rights, again both orally and in writing. Immediately after he signed the waiver, but before he was asked any questions by the police detectives, however, defendant made statements and asked questions that led to a brief discussion with one of the detectives relating to his right to counsel. Following that exchange, he confessed.

The trial court found that defendant's statements were an equivocal assertion of his right to counsel and that the police both had failed to honor that request and had misinformed defendant when responding to his questions. Based on those findings, the court concluded that there was insufficient proof that defendant's waiver of his rights was knowing, intelligent and voluntary, and granted his motion to suppress his confession.

Although the Appellate Division agreed that the statements made by defendant were ambiguous, the appellate panel concluded that the detective's questions in response to defendant's statements were permissible, because they were narrowly tailored and were only designed to clarify whether defendant was asserting his right to counsel. Based upon its review of the stipulated transcript, the Appellate Division further concluded that the verbal exchange between defendant and the detective clarified that defendant had not asserted any of his rights, and the court therefore reversed the suppression order.

This appeal requires this Court to consider whether the statements made by defendant immediately after he signed the waiver of his rights were an ambiguous assertion of his right to counsel and whether the detective's questions in response constituted a permissible clarification. Because we conclude that the officer's questions did not exceed the scope of permissible clarification and because defendant's statements, when clarified, were not an assertion of his right to counsel, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

I.

As a result of their investigation into the September 2, 2007 murder of Dana Grimsley, Newark police officers obtained a warrant for defendant's arrest. That warrant was executed in the early morning hours of January 8, 2008, when defendant was arrested at his home. He was transported to the Newark Police Station, arriving around 8:00 a.m., and he was left in an ...


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