543 S.E.2d 823 (N.C. 2001), 190A00, State v. Buchanan

Docket Nº:190A00.
Citation:543 S.E.2d 823, 353 N.C. 332
Party Name:STATE of North Carolina v. Rodney Dale BUCHANAN.
Case Date:April 06, 2001
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina

Page 823

543 S.E.2d 823 (N.C. 2001)

353 N.C. 332

STATE of North Carolina


Rodney Dale BUCHANAN.

No. 190A00.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

April 6, 2001

Page 824

         Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-979(c) from an order allowing suppression of defendant's statement entered in a first-degree murder case by Beal, J., on 14 February 2000, nunc pro tunc 7 February 2000, in Superior Court, Gaston County. Heard in the Supreme Court 17 October 2000.

         Michael F. Easley, Attorney General, by William P. Hart, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

         Richard B. Schultz and Edgar F. Bogle, Gastonia, for defendant-appellee.

         [353 N.C. 333] LAKE, Chief Justice.

         Defendant was arrested on 2 July 1997 by Gaston County police for the 24 June 1997 murders of Ronald Hoyle and Maria Pressley and was subsequently indicted on 4 August 1997 for two counts of first-degree murder. On 31 January 2000, defendant filed a motion to suppress his pretrial statements to detectives based on the assertions that defendant was "in custody" at the time the statements were given, defendant was not advised of his constitutional rights until after he had made incriminating statements, and defendant's mental and physical faculties were impaired at the time the statements were given. The motion to suppress was heard by Judge Beverly T. Beal on 7 February 2000, and following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court made extensive findings of fact and reached conclusions of law in open court and granted defendant's motion to suppress. On 14 February 2000, nunc pro tunc 7 February 2000, the trial court entered a written order to that effect. The State filed written notice of appeal on 14 February 2000.

         Evidence presented at the suppression hearing showed that on 2 July 1997, at approximately 1:30 p.m., Sergeant Dean Henderson of the Gaston County Police Department was dispatched to the construction site of a church where defendant was working on the roof. When informed that Sergeant Henderson was there to see him, defendant climbed down a ladder to speak to the sergeant. The two had spoken a few days earlier about the homicides of Maria Pressley and Ronald Hoyle, and on 2 July, the sergeant informed defendant that new information had been received and that officers needed to speak with defendant at the police station. Apparently, police had found some inconsistencies in statements regarding defendant's whereabouts on the night of the murders.

         Sergeant Henderson was in plain clothes and was driving an unmarked car. He asked defendant if he would come to the police station to answer some questions, and defendant agreed. Sergeant Henderson gave defendant the option of taking defendant's own vehicle to the station or riding with him, and defendant chose to ride with Sergeant Henderson. The sergeant told defendant that he was not under arrest and that he was free to leave at any time. Defendant was not handcuffed or searched and rode in the front passenger seat of the vehicle.

         At the police station, Sergeant Henderson parked in back of the building in a lot where officers park, and he and defendant entered a [353 N.C. 334] back door of the building and went through the break room and up one flight of stairs to the second floor. Defendant asked to use the rest room, and after receiving directions from Sergeant Henderson, defendant went to the rest room and to get a drink of water by himself. The two then went to Captain Farley's office, which was approximately twelve feet by twelve feet and had a desk, some computer equipment, a telephone, some chairs and one window. Sergeant Henderson left defendant alone in the office and went to get Sergeants Osborne and Myers, who came into the office a few minutes

Page 825

later. Both sergeants were dressed in shirt and tie; Sergeant Osborne was wearing a firearm, and Sergeant Myers was unarmed. Sergeant Osborne sat at the desk to take notes, defendant sat in a chair in front of the desk, and Sergeant Myers sat in another chair next to defendant. Sergeant Myers conducted the interview, which started at approximately 2:00 p.m., half an hour after defendant was picked up at his work site.

         At the beginning of the interview, Sergeant Myers told defendant that he was not under arrest and that he was free to leave at any time. He also asked defendant if he wanted anything to eat or drink and engaged in conversation to establish rapport. The sergeant eventually told defendant that they had spoken to Vaughn Trammel, who lived near the clubhouse where the victims had been killed; that they had talked about defendant's whereabouts at the time of the homicides; and that Trammel had said that defendant told him not to tell the police that defendant was at Trammel's house the night of the murders. In response to the sergeant's request for an explanation, defendant admitted to being at the clubhouse the night of the murders.

         After further questioning, defendant gave an oral statement, between 2:00 p.m. and 3:23 p.m., stating that he went to the clubhouse that night, that Hoyle was upset with him because defendant was drunk and that a confrontation ensued between defendant and Hoyle in the living room. Defendant stated that he "just went berserk," that he went behind the bar where the shotgun rack was and that he took a gun off the wall and started shooting at Hoyle and Pressley.

         Sergeant Myers estimated that defendant gave the verbal statement about forty-five minutes into the interview and that Sergeant Osborne started writing the statement at 3:23 p.m. Shortly thereafter, defendant asked to use the rest room, and defendant and both officers went to the rest room, with Sergeant Osborne entering first, defendant following, and Sergeant Myers entering last. Sergeant [353 N.C. 335] Osborne was the first one out of the rest room, and he and defendant were standing in the hallway when Sergeant Myers came out. Upon returning to the office, defendant was again told he was not under arrest and was free to leave.

         After the written statement was prepared, the officers gave it to defendant for him to read and sign. Defendant signed the statement at 4:36 p.m. After defendant signed the statement, the officers asked him for further clarification based on the fact that the victims had been shot in their bedroom at the clubhouse, and this was inconsistent with defendant's statement that the shooting had occurred in the living room. Defendant then admitted that after the fight was over, Hoyle and Pressley went downstairs to the bedroom, and because defendant felt that Hoyle was going to get his shotgun, defendant went to the bedroom and shot them. Defendant's change to his statement was reduced to writing and signed by defendant at 5:46 p.m. Defendant had not yet been advised of his Miranda rights.

         After defendant's second statement was signed, he was arrested and charged, he was given Miranda warnings, the officers filled in the Miranda form, and defendant signed the form waiving his constitutional rights at 5:57 p.m. The next day, at 11:00 a.m., while in custody, the officers again advised defendant of his Miranda rights, and those rights were invoked.

         During the evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress, Sergeant Osborne stated that about halfway through the interview the secretary's phone rang, and because the secretary was talking on the phone, the sergeant closed the office door where the interview was being conducted. The door remained closed, but unlocked, for the rest of the interview.

         Both sergeants also stated that, other than one request for a bathroom break, defendant never asked for anything to eat or drink, to make a telephone call, to take a break or to leave. Defendant was never patted down or handcuffed, and the seating arrangement of the three did not change. The sergeants stated that they did not notice any odor of alcohol; impairment in defendant's speech; bloodshot, glassy, or watery eyes; or any signs that defendant was under the influence of any impairing substance.

Page 826

         On appeal, the State contends the trial court applied an incomplete test in determining whether defendant was "in custody" for the purposes of Miranda and, therefore, erred in granting defendant's [353 N.C. 336] motion to suppress. Specifically, the State contends that in reaching its decision to suppress defendant's statement, the trial court's inquiry was based on the incorrect standard of whether a reasonable person in defendant's position, under the totality of the circumstances, would have felt "free to leave," rather than whether a reasonable person would have perceived that there was a " formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." We agree that the trial court applied the incorrect test in determining whether defendant was "in custody" for the purposes of Miranda, and we remand to the trial court for reconsideration and application of the appropriate test.

          It is well established that the standard of review in evaluating a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress is that the trial court's findings of fact " 'are conclusive...

To continue reading