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State ex rel. A.A.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 15, 2020

State of New Jersey in the Interest of A.A., Juvenile.

          Argued October 23, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 455 N.J.Super. 492 (App. Div. 2018).

          Frank Muroski, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant State of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Frank Muroski, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Alyssa Aiello, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent A.A. (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Alyssa Aiello, of counsel and on the briefs).

          William J. Munoz argued the cause for amicus curiae Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (Whipple Azzarello, attorneys; William J. Munoz, on the brief).

          Laura Cohen argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation and Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, attorneys; Alexander Shalom and Jeanne LoCicero, of counsel and on the brief, and Laura Cohen, on the brief).

         RABNER, C.J., writing for the Court.

         In State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304, 316 (2000), the Court directed law enforcement officers to "use their best efforts to locate a parent or legal guardian" before starting to interrogate a juvenile in custody. In an otherwise intimidating setting, parents can help juveniles understand they have the right not to incriminate themselves and the right to have an attorney present -- and can help juveniles decide whether to waive their rights. Parents essentially serve "as a buffer" between juveniles and the police. Id. at 315.

         In this appeal, the Court considers whether incriminating statements a fifteen-year-old made to his mother at a police station can be used against him.

         On July 7, 2016, Officer Joseph Labarbera saw three black males on bicycles head east on Wilkinson Avenue in Jersey City. About fifteen seconds later, he and his partner heard eight to ten gunshots from the east. They transmitted over the radio what they had heard along with a description of the three men on bicycles. Soon after, two victims were found in front of 135 Wilkinson Avenue, in the direction the cyclists were seen riding.

         A.A. was stopped nearby and, based on Labarbera's identification, was taken into custody, brought to a juvenile facility, and placed in a holding cell. In accordance with Presha, the police contacted his mother, who was taken to an interview room where Detective Joseph Chidichimo and another officer told her why A.A. was under arrest. A.A.'s mother was visibly emotional and asked to speak with her son; the officers took her to where A.A. was detained. The police allowed A.A. and his mother to speak through the gate of the holding cell. Five officers were in the room within ten to fifteen feet of A.A.

         Chidichimo testified at a pretrial hearing that he overheard the conversation between A.A. and his mother. According to the detective, A.A.'s mother asked if he had been on Wilkinson Avenue, and he confirmed that he had. When she asked why, A.A. responded, "because they jumped us last week." At that point, A.A.'s mother began to cry and left the room.

         A.A.'s mother testified at the hearing. She explained that the police told her A.A. had "shot somebody" and that she asked to speak with her son. She said she was crying and spoke in a loud voice, and that she and her son could see multiple officers in the room at the time. She testified that A.A. denied "do[ing] that" and said nothing about "being jumped."

         A.A. was charged with two counts of attempted murder as well as weapons offenses. At the delinquency hearing, the State introduced A.A.'s statements to his mother, which the Family Part judge had found admissible; testimony from Labarbera, Chidichimo, and another officer; photos and physical evidence from the shooting; and video surveillance. The video was not clear enough to identify any of the cyclists. And none of the physical evidence directly connected A.A. to the shooting.

         The judge adjudicated A.A. delinquent on two counts of aggravated assault and all weapons charges, relying heavily on Officer Labarbera's testimony that he observed A.A. riding a bicycle on Wilkinson Avenue just before the shooting; the surveillance video; and Detective Chidichimo's account of A.A.'s statement to his mother. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new hearing. 455 N.J.Super. 492, 506-07 (App. Div. 2018). The Court granted certification. 236 N.J. 602 (2019).

         HELD: The actions of the police amounted to the functional equivalent of interrogation. As a result, A.A. should have been advised of his Miranda rights in the presence of his mother. To hold otherwise would turn Presha and the safeguards it envisioned on their head. To address the special concerns presented when a juvenile is brought into custody, police officers should advise juveniles of their Miranda rights in the presence of a parent or guardian before the police question, or a parent speaks with, the juvenile. Officers should then let the parent and child consult in private. That approach would afford parents a meaningful opportunity to help juveniles understand their rights and decide whether to waive them. Because A.A.'s inadmissible statements comprised a substantial part of the proofs against him, a new hearing is necessary.

         1. Federal and state law provide protections against self-incrimination. Suspects can waive their rights and make incriminating statements to law enforcement. To be admissible at trial, the State must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect's waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Courts look to the totality of the circumstances to assess the voluntariness of a statement. (pp. 11-12)

         2. In Rhode Island v. Innis, officers arrested the defendant for robbery with a sawed-off shotgun. 446 U.S. 291, 293-94 (1980). Innis received three sets of Miranda warnings but declined to waive his rights. Id. at 294. While Innis was being transported to the central police station, two officers discussed the risk that students who attended a nearby school for "handicapped children" "might find a weapon" and "hurt themselves." Id. at 294-95. Innis interrupted the conversation and told the officers to "turn the car around so he could show them where the gun was located." Id. at 295. The United States Supreme Court held that Miranda's safeguards applied not only to express interrogation of a suspect in custody but also to "its functional equivalent." Id. at 300-01. (pp. 12-15)

         3. The New Jersey Supreme Court has interpreted N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-19 and N.J.R.E. 503 to grant broader protection than the federal privilege against self-incrimination. The Court has adopted the Innis standard and embraced the view that interrogation includes not only direct questioning but also any words or actions on the part of the police that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. (pp. 15-16)

         4. Juveniles receive heightened protections when it comes to custodial interrogations for obvious reasons. Without guidance from an adult relative, friend, or lawyer, juveniles are on an unequal footing with their interrogators and are not able to know, let alone assert, their constitutional rights. In State in Interest of S.H., the Court "emphasize[d that] whenever possible and especially in the case of young children no child should be interviewed except in the presence of his parents or guardian." 61 N.J. 108, 114-15 (1972). (pp. 16-17)

         5. The Court built on S.H. in Presha, 163 N.J. at 314. Noting that "[p]arents are in a position to assist juveniles in understanding their rights, acting intelligently in waiving those rights, and otherwise remaining calm in the face of an interrogation," id. at 315, the Court imposed a bright-line rule for juveniles under the age of fourteen that statements made "when a parent or legal guardian is absent from" the interrogation are not admissible "unless the adult was unwilling to be present or truly unavailable," ibid. For all juveniles, the Court instructed that "police officers must use their best efforts to locate a parent or legal guardian before" an interrogation begins. Id. at 316. (pp. 18-19)

         6. The Court's recent ruling in State in Interest of A.S., 203 N.J. 131 (2010), underscored the supportive role parents have in the context of a custodial interrogation. In A.S., the police enlisted the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl, A.S., to help during the interrogation process. They asked the mother to recite the Miranda warnings and did not correct her misstatements. Id. at 136. A.S.'s mother repeatedly badgered her into answering the officer's questions. The Court concluded that A.S.'s confession was involuntary and confirmed that a parent's "presence alone" is not what Presha contemplated. Id. at 148, 152. To serve as a buffer between the police and the juvenile, a parent must act "with the interests of the juvenile in mind." Id. at 148. The Court affirmed that the purpose of Presha -- to have a parent present during interrogation --"was to assist the child in the exercise of his or her constitutional rights; it was not to provide the police with an assistant." Id. at 137. (pp. 19-20)

         7. Here, the police contacted A.A.'s mother and summoned her to the police station. The reason to summon A.A.'s mother was for her to help her son understand his rights and act intelligently in deciding whether to waive them. See Presha, 163 N.J. at 315. But before mother and son began to speak, the police did not advise A.A. of his rights in his mother's presence. Neither A.A. nor his mother had been made aware that anything A.A. might say could be used against him, among other important rights. A.A. made critical admissions to his mother that the Family Part judge later relied on. He was subjected to the "functional equivalent" of express questioning while in custody, and his statements, obtained without the benefit of Miranda warnings, are thus inadmissible. What took place here upended the Presha model. Instead of serving as a buffer to help a juvenile understand his rights, the child's mother unwittingly assisted the police and helped gather incriminating evidence. The Court bases its ruling on state law. (pp. 20-22)

         8. The protections outlined in Presha remain good law. The Court adds the following guidance. The police should advise juveniles in custody of their Miranda rights -- in the presence of a parent or legal guardian -- before the police question, or a parent speaks with, the juvenile. Officers should then give parents or guardians a meaningful opportunity to consult with the juvenile in private about those rights. That approach would enable parents to help children understand their rights and decide whether to waive them -- as contemplated in Presha. If law enforcement officers do not allow a parent and juvenile to consult in private, absent a compelling reason, that fact should weigh heavily in the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the juvenile's waiver and statements were voluntary. See ibid. If legitimate security concerns require the police to observe a private consultation, the police can monitor the interaction without listening to the words spoken between parent and child. (pp. 22-23)

         9. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division that a new hearing is required. 455 N.J.Super. at 506. The Family Part judge pointedly relied on A.A.'s statements to establish his whereabouts at the time of the offense as well as his motive. The pivotal admissions were "clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2. (p. 24)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is REMANDED for a new hearing.

          JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON and TIMPONE join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion.

          OPINION

          RABNER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         In State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304, 316 (2000), the Court directed law enforcement officers to "use their best efforts to locate a parent or legal guardian" before starting to interrogate a juvenile in custody. In an otherwise intimidating setting, parents can help juveniles understand they have the right not to incriminate themselves and the right to have an attorney present -- and can help juveniles decide whether to waive their rights. Parents essentially serve "as a buffer" between juveniles and the police. Id. at 315.

         In this appeal, we consider whether incriminating statements a fifteen-year-old made to his mother at a police station can be used against him. The police arrested the juvenile, A.A., in connection with a shooting incident, and summoned his mother to the police station in compliance with Presha. They advised her of the charges her son faced and then brought her to see him at her request.

         Officers listened to the conversation between mother and son -- which took place on opposite sides of the gate of a holding cell -- and the State later presented the comments at trial. At no point did the police advise A.A. of his rights. Nor did they question him after he made admissions to his mother.

         Like the Appellate Division, we find that the actions of the police amounted to the functional equivalent of interrogation. As a result, A.A. should have been advised of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), in the presence of his mother. To hold ...


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