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State v. A.M.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

April 1, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
A.M., Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued January 15, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 452 N.J.Super. 587 (App. Div. 2018).

          Ian C. Kennedy, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Dennis Calo, Acting Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney; Ian C. Kennedy, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Brian J. Neary argued the cause for respondent (Law Offices of Brian J. Neary, attorneys; Brian J. Neary, of counsel and on the letter briefs, and Jane M. Personette, on the letter briefs).

          Jane C. Schuster, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jane C. Schuster, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Emma R. Moore, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for amicus curiae Public Defender of New Jersey (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Emma R. Moore, of counsel and on the brief, and Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).

          Alexander Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, attorneys; Alexander Shalom and Jeanne LoCicero, on the brief).

          SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers whether under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), defendant A.M., who speaks limited English, waived his constitutional right against self-incrimination pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

         Defendant was alone in his apartment with his fourteen-year-old step-granddaughter, A.I., when he hugged her from behind, touching her breasts and vagina over her bathing suit, and inserted at least one finger into her vagina. After learning of the incident, A.I.'s mother contacted the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. Officers went to defendant's home and transported him to the Bergenfield Police Department.

         Because defendant spoke little English and stated that he was more comfortable with Spanish, Detective Richard Ramos assisted in translating the interview from English to Spanish. The entire interview was video-recorded to a DVD and later transcribed in English by a clerk-typist employed by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.

         Before the interview, Detective Ramos reviewed with defendant a Spanish-language form prepared by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, which listed each of defendant's Miranda rights and contained a waiver paragraph. Detective Ramos read defendant his Miranda rights from the Spanish-language form, pausing after reading each one to ask defendant in Spanish if he understood. Defendant replied "sí" (yes) each time and initialed each line. Detective Ramos then handed the form to defendant to review the waiver portion and asked in Spanish, "Do you understand?" Defendant replied, "Sí," and Detective Ramos told defendant to sign in two places, which defendant did.

         During the course of the interrogation that followed, defendant admitted to touching his step-granddaughter inappropriately. A grand jury indicted defendant for multiple counts of sexual assault and for endangering the welfare of a child.

         Defendant challenged the admission of his statement to police and Detective Ramos's translation of the interview. At the hearing on defendant's suppression motion, Detective Ramos testified that defendant "took his time reading [the form]. It appears to [him] that [defendant] did read it." Detective Ramos acknowledged that he did not ask any questions to determine defendant's educational background or literacy level. He also testified about discrepancies between the video recording and the transcript of defendant's statement and explained that he was "paraphrasing" defendant's answers.

         After watching the DVD of defendant's interview, the trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress, finding that "defendant appeared calm during the interview, appeared to understand the questions posed to him in both English and Spanish, and was able to answer the questions forthrightly." The court also explained that defendant seemed "alert and cognizant" while the form was explained to him and that "it [was] clear from the video tape that defendant was given an opportunity to read the waiver paragraph and signed the waiver portion, and did in fact review the waiver portion before signing it." Finally, referring to defendant's expressed preference that the interview be conducted in Spanish, the court added that, "[i]f defendant had any problem reading the waiver portion of the form, written in Spanish as he had requested, it is clear to this court that he would have voiced such difficulty." The court concluded that, considering the totality of the circumstances, defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. Defendant pled guilty to second-degree sexual assault while reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.

         The Appellate Division reversed, finding the State failed to prove defendant made a voluntary decision to waive his Miranda rights. 452 N.J.Super. 587, 590 (App. Div. 2018). The panel found that "[t]he [trial] judge's analysis improperly shift[ed] the burden of proof to defendant to alert the interrogating officers about any difficulty he may be having understanding the ramifications of a legal waiver." Id. at 599. The panel also challenged the interrogation's transcription. See id. at 599-600. Additionally, a concurring opinion sets forth perceived "inherent constitutional flaws" in relying on police officers, rather than certified neutral translators, as interpreters during custodial interrogations. Id. at 600-04.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 234 N.J. 192 (2018).

         HELD: Although the better practice would have been to read aloud the form's waiver portion to defendant, the Court relies on the trial court's well-supported observations and factual findings and reverses the Appellate Division's judgment.

         1. Generally, on appellate review, a trial court's factual findings in support of granting or denying a motion to suppress must be upheld when those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. In State v. S.S., 229 N.J. 360, 381 (2017), the Court extended that deferential standard of appellate review to "factual findings based on a video recording or documentary evidence" to ensure that New Jersey's trial courts remain "the finder of the facts." (pp. 11-12)

          2. To ensure that a person subject to custodial interrogation is adequately and effectively apprised of his rights, the United States Supreme Court developed the Miranda warnings. The administration of Miranda warnings ensures that a defendant's right against self-incrimination is protected in the inherently coercive atmosphere of custodial interrogation. A waiver of a defendant's Miranda rights must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary in light of all of the circumstances surrounding the custodial interrogation. In the totality-of-the-circumstances inquiry, courts generally rely on factors such as the suspect's age, education and intelligence, advice as to constitutional rights, length of detention, whether the questioning was repeated and prolonged in nature and whether physical punishment or mental exhaustion was involved. (pp. 12-15)

         3. The Court reviews the trial court's factual findings in detail and concludes that the failure of Detective Ramos to read the entire Miranda rights form aloud did not "improperly shift[] the burden of proof to defendant to alert the interrogating officers about any difficulty he may be having understanding the ramifications of a legal waiver." 452 N.J.Super. at 599. To eliminate questions about a suspect's understanding, the entire Miranda form should be read aloud to a suspect being interrogated, or the suspect should be asked to read the entire form aloud. Where that is not done, the suspect should be asked about his or her literacy and educational background. Nevertheless, in this case, because sufficient credible evidence in the record supports the trial court's findings, the Court agrees with the trial court that the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary express waiver of his Miranda rights. See S.S., 229 N.J. at 365. The Court therefore does not reach the issue of implicit waiver. (pp. 15-18)

         4. The Court notes that this case demonstrates plainly the importance of videotaping custodial interrogations of suspects by police. (pp. 18-19)

         5. Any defendant has the right to challenge a translation under N.J.R.E. 104(c), which governs pretrial hearings on the admissibility of a defendant's statement. Because a defendant has the right to contest a translation of a custodial interrogation, as was done here, and Rule 104(c) provides the mechanism to do so, the Court rejects the holdings of the Appellate Division's concurring opinion. That said, the State, as well as the defendant, is best served by the use of a capable translator during an interview. (p. 19)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and defendant's conviction is REINSTATED.


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