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State of New Jersey v. John Wessells

February 29, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOHN WESSELLS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



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 v. John Wessells (A-27-09) (064599)

Argued January 6, 2010 -- Remanded June 4, 2010 Reargued November 30, 2011 -- Decided February 29, 2012

HOENS, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal turns on whether a second interrogation by police of defendant following his arrest violated his previously-invoked right to counsel and therefore rendered the statements he made at that time involuntary.

On September 3, 2006, defendant John Wessells was arrested at his home in connection with an outstanding traffic warrant. At the time, the arresting detectives were involved in investigating an incident that had taken place the previous day in which three people had been shot to death and two others had been wounded. The police investigation into that incident had already led to the arrest of a suspect, Raheem Clay. Defendant was taken to police headquarters where he was advised of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), both orally and in writing. He read and signed the written form, indicating that he understood his rights and that he agreed to waive them. The detectives asked defendant about an incident on August 24 involving Sandra Bellush, one of the homicide victims. Defendant admitted that he and Bellush had an argument at that time about money. Defendant also told them that when he and Bellush could not resolve their dispute, he was assaulted by three of Bellush's friends. The September 3, 2006 interrogation ended without defendant making any further inculpatory statements and he was released from custody after posting bail on the outstanding traffic warrants.

After defendant's release, the police continued their investigation into the triple homicide. They interviewed the two survivors, one of whom identified defendant as having been involved in the shootings. On September 12, 2006, defendant was again taken into custody for questioning. The September 12, 2006, interrogation was recorded. Defendant was again advised of his rights, which he again waived. In his statement to the police, he admitted that he had been present during the homicides and shootings and he identified both Clay and another person as being involved. He again admitted that he had been having a dispute with Bellush over money and asserted that her friends had assaulted him. He denied that he had any responsibility for the shootings.

Defendant was arrested and charged with various offenses, including first degree conspiracy to commit murder, purposeful or knowing murder by use of a handgun, and first degree attempted murder. Defendant moved to suppress the statements he made during both of the interrogations. At a hearing conducted on the motion, the focus was on defendant's waiver of his Miranda rights. During his direct testimony, defendant asserted that when the detectives started asking about the murders, he denied knowing anything about them and asked to speak with a lawyer. When he was cross-examined, defendant acknowledged that he responded to many questions before asking to speak with a lawyer. He also asserted that he asked to speak with a lawyer when he was asked about having been a victim in the August 24 incident. Defendant never suggested that questioning continued after he invoked his right to counsel, instead conceding that as soon as he asked for a lawyer, the interrogation stopped.

The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress his September 3 statements, concluding that he had been informed about the purpose of the interrogation and had waived his rights prior to making the statements. However, without explicitly finding that the questioning had stopped based on defendant's asserted invocation of his right to counsel, the court concluded that the reinitiation of questioning on September 12 violated defendant's constitutional rights.

The Appellate Division granted the State's motion for leave to appeal and, in a published opinion, reversed the order suppressing the statements defendant made on September 12. State v. Wessells, 408 N.J. Super. 188, 197 (App. Div. 2009). The panel reasoned that once defendant was released from custody, he was afforded an adequate opportunity to consult with counsel. The panel noted that when the investigators reinitiated questioning, defendant was again advised of his Miranda rights and that his waiver of those rights was knowing and voluntary.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal. 200 N.J. 364 (2009). Following oral argument before this Court in January 2010, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Maryland v. Shatzer, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 175 L. Ed. 2d 1045 (2010), which analyzed the implications of a break in custody, following an assertion of the right to counsel, when interrogation is reinitiated by the investigating authorities. Because the trial court's original analysis of this defendant's suppression motion had not included a factual finding on the disputed issue of why the September 3 interrogation had ended, this Court remanded the matter to the trial court to conduct a further proceeding.

On remand, the trial court found that the detectives questioned defendant on September 3 about the triple homicide, that defendant invoked his right to counsel in response to those questions, and that the interrogation ceased because of the invocation of the right to counsel. In addition, the trial court found that when defendant was taken into custody for further questioning on September 12, he was again advised of his constitutional rights in accordance with Miranda and that his waiver of those rights was both voluntary and knowing.

HELD: Because the defendant has not yet been tried for the crimes with which he has been charged, he is entitled to the benefit of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Maryland v. Shatzer, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 175 L. Ed. 2d 1045 (2010), and the statements he made during his second interrogation must therefore be suppressed.

1. Demonstrating that an individual has validly waived his or her right to counsel long required a showing that the waiver was knowing, voluntary and intelligent. Concluding that an additional safeguard was needed, the United States Supreme Court created what has become known as the Edwards rule. Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981). In Edwards the Court held that a suspect who has invoked his or her right to counsel "is not subject to further interrogation by the authorities until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police." Id. at 484-85. The Court expanded the rule's reach, concluding that, once the right to counsel was invoked, a suspect who consulted with an attorney had not suspended his prior invocation of his right to counsel, such that statements made during a second interrogation without counsel violated his previously-asserted constitutional right. Minnick v. Mississippi, 498 U.S. 146, 153 (1990). In McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 176 (1991), the Court observed that "[i]f the police do subsequently initiate an encounter in the absence of counsel (assuming there has been no break in custody), the suspect's statements are presumed involuntary and therefore inadmissible as substantive evidence at trial[.]" McNeil, supra, 501 U.S. at 177. Following McNeil, state and federal courts uniformly interpreted its comment to be an acknowledgement by the United States Supreme Court that there is a break-in-custody exception to the presumption announced in Edwards. The time frames that the courts found to be sufficient for purposes of the break-in-custody exception, however, varied widely. The Appellate Division in this case was persuaded by the reasoning of the federal and state courts and found the nine-day break in this case sufficient. (pp. 9-16)

2. In Shatzer, supra, the United States Supreme Court explicitly recognized the break-in-custody exception to Edwards. The Court identified considerations relevant to a suspect released from custody, including the fact that such an individual is not isolated, is likely to be in contact with counsel, family or friends, and has already learned that a demand for counsel will cause interrogation to end. Utilizing those factors, the Court concluded that such a suspect who waives his rights during renewed interrogation cannot be presumed to have been coerced. Explicitly rejecting an analysis of Edwards that would result in the "disastrous" consequence of an endless presumption of involuntariness, the Court adopted the approach taken "uniformly" in the federal and state courts. Having so concluded, the Court chose a practical approach, electing to fix fourteen (14) days as the time needed for a break in custody that would serve to protect the rights of suspects as well as the needs of law enforcement. This Court's reading of Shatzer leads it to conclude that the Supreme Court meant to create a single rule such that a break in custody shorter than fourteen days is insufficient. (pp. 16-22)

3. The United States Constitution does not address whether any decision of the United States Supreme Court shall be given retroactive or prospective effect. Instead, federal retroactivity turns on whether a new rule of law has been announced, coupled with an analysis of the status of the particular matter, that is, whether it is not yet final, is pending on direct appeal, or is being collaterally reviewed. Regardless of the fine points of how the retroactivity analysis might apply to others, the Court agrees with defendant in this case that he is entitled to the benefit of the rule announced in Shatzer because he has not yet been tried. (pp. 22-24)

4. Shatzer created a simple rule intended to serve both the purpose of alerting the police to the time frame that defendants must be afforded following the invocation of the right to counsel and the time span of the release from custody required to ensure that a confession given during renewed interrogation will not violate that previously-asserted right. This Court concludes that defendant is entitled to the benefit of the Shatzer rule, inasmuch as he has

not yet been tried for the crimes with which he has been charged. In this case, it was nine days later when defendant was again arrested. Although he was again advised of his Miranda rights, the clear rule of Shatzer demands that the Court conclude that the coercive taint of the initial interrogation had not dissipated and that his statements on September 12 were therefore not voluntary. (pp. 24-26)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, and JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion.

Argued January 6, 2010 -- Remanded June 4, 2010 Reargued November 30, 2011 --

On appeal to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super. 188 (2009).

JUSTICE HOENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal turns on whether police questioning of defendant John Wessells following his arrest violated his previously-invoked right to counsel and therefore rendered the statements he made at that time involuntary. Our answer to that question rests on both the meaning of and the retroactive effect to be given to the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued after the events in question, analyzing the implications of a break in custody following the invocation of a right to counsel. See Maryland v. Shatzer, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 175 L. Ed. 2d 1045 (2010). Our consideration of those issues leads us to conclude that because defendant has not yet been tried for the crimes with which he has been ...


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