42 N.Y.2d 129, People v. Morales

Citation:42 N.Y.2d 129, 397 N.Y.S.2d 587
Party Name:People v. Morales
Case Date:June 14, 1977
Court:New York Court of Appeals

Page 129

42 N.Y.2d 129

397 N.Y.S.2d 587

The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent,


Melvin MORALES, Appellant.

New York Court of Appeals

June 14, 1977.

Joseph A. Monica, New York City, for appellant.

Mario Merola, Dist. Atty. (Daniel J. Sullivan, New York City, of counsel), for respondent.

JASEN, Judge.

This case is here for the second time. In the early morning hours of October 4, 1964, Addie Brown was viciously stabbed to death in the elevator of her Bronx County apartment building. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder and an extensive police investigation [397 N.Y.S.2d 588] failed to uncover any direct evidence as to the identity of the killer. Yet the police did learn that Melvin Morales, a known narcotics addict, had frequented the building, had been inside the building at the time of the homicide, and had not been seen since the murder. Morales' mother was a tenant in the building and Morales sojourned with her from time to time. Further, the building was the scene of frequent narcotics activity in which Morales allegedly participated. The police attempted to contact Morales through his mother. On October 13, 1964, nine days after the killing, Mrs. Morales received a telephone call from her son. She informed him that the police desired to question him. Morales agreed to appear at his mother's beauty parlor, her place of business. The police, who had seen previous efforts to contact Morales through his mother fail, had staked out the premises. When Morales arrived, the police advised him that they desired to speak to him. Morales replied, "Yes, I know." He was placed in a police car and driven to the precinct house. At the station house, Morales was informed of his constitutional rights and was questioned. Within 15 minutes, he confessed to the murder.

Defendant was convicted, after a jury trial, of murder in the first degree. The Appellate Division affirmed his conviction (27 A.D.2d 904, 280 N.Y.S.2d 520) and a further appeal was taken to our court. We sustained the conviction. It was conceded that the record would not support a conclusion that the police had probable cause to arrest defendant at the time he was taken into police custody. Further, the record on appeal did not establish that the defendant consented to being detained and questioned by the police. However, in a case of first impression, we held "that a suspect may be detained upon reasonable suspicion for a reasonable and brief period of time for questioning under carefully controlled conditions protecting his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights." (People v. Morales, 22 N.Y.2d 55, 64, 290 N.Y.S.2d 898, 907, 238 N.E.2d 307, 314.)

This court recognized that interrogation of persons with knowledge of the facts is the principal means of solving crimes and that the public interest in bringing to justice perpetrators of serious crimes required that interrogation not be completely forbidden. It was emphasized that police inquiry must be kept within reasonable limits and that the rights of the suspect must be fully regarded. Yet, brief detention for questioning is essential to criminal investigation and a suspect, detained for questioning only, may not construe such detention as constituting an arrest for, and formal charge of, criminal activity. A suspect, advised of his constitutional rights, has a clear choice. He may elect to co-operate with the inquiry or he may decline to speak. If the suspect chooses to stand on his rights, the police must release him from custody unless they have probable cause to arrest him for a specified crime.

In applying these rules to defendant Morales, we concluded that the police conduct was justified under the exceptional circumstances of the case. A brutal and heinous felony had been committed. All of the indications raised by the "checkerboard square" of police investigation pointed at the defendant. Interrogation of the defendant was the only practical investigative technique open to the police. The period of detention was brief and defendant, experienced in police procedures, was fully advised of his constitutional rights.

Defendant took an appeal from our decision to the United States Supreme Court. That court elected "not to grapple with the question of the legality of custodial questioning on less than probable cause for a fullfledged arrest." (Morales v. New York, 396 U.S. 102, 105-106, 90 S.Ct. 291, 293, 24 L.Ed.2d 299.) While the court concluded that Morales' confession was voluntary, it vacated the judgment of conviction and remanded the case for a further evidentiary hearing. "Given an opportunity to develop in an evidentiary hearing the circumstances leading to the detention of Morales and his [397 N.Y.S.2d 589] confessions, the State may be able to show that there was...

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