State v. Helmenstein, 20000062.

Decision Date27 December 2000
Docket NumberNo. 20000062.,20000062.
PartiesSTATE of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Shawn Glenn HELMENSTEIN, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Richard J. Riha, State's Attorney, and Rick L. Volk, Assistant State's Attorney, Bismarck, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

Robert W. Martin, Bismarck, ND, for defendant and appellant.

SANDSTROM, Justice.

[¶ 1] A jury convicted Shawn Glenn Helmenstein of the class AA murder of Robbie Rahrich, and the robbery of the House of Bottles. He appeals. We affirm, concluding the confessions were admissible and the district court did not err in denying a change of venue.

I

[¶ 2] Early on the morning of February 21, 1999, someone entered the House of Bottles liquor store in Bismarck, North Dakota, killed the store clerk, Robbie Rahrich, and stole money from the store. Bismarck police officers went to Montana to question Helmenstein, a former employee of the liquor store, who was reportedly in Bismarck at the time of the crime. Helmenstein confessed to the crimes, and waived extradition to North Dakota. When he was returned to North Dakota, Helmenstein accompanied law enforcement officers, at their request, and walked through the murder scene. He subsequently was taken before a North Dakota magistrate.

[¶ 3] Helmenstein's motion to suppress his confessions was denied. His motion for change of venue was also denied. The jury found Helmenstein guilty of both charges. Helmenstein appeals, arguing his confessions should have been excluded and venue should have been changed.

[¶ 4] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D.C.C. § 27-05-06. This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 6, and N.D.C.C. § 29-28-06.

II

[¶ 5] Helmenstein argues his will was overborne and his waiver of Miranda rights was not knowing, voluntary, or intelligent. He argues the confessions elicited, both at the time of his arrest in Montana and upon his return to North Dakota, were improperly obtained. Although the confessions in this case are interrelated, for clarification we adopt the parties' convention of identifying four separate interviews: (1) an approximately 45-minute interview in the Clinton, Montana, home where Helmenstein was staying (he denied involvement in the murder and robbery); (2) an approximately 40-minute interview in the Montana home, after officers found the murder weapon and money from the robbery (Helmenstein first confessed); (3) an approximately 17-minute, tape-recorded confession; and (4) a videotaped walk-through of the murder scene. The first three took place between 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. on March 1, 1999, in Clinton, Montana. The fourth took place on March 2, 1999, in Bismarck.

[¶ 6] "[F]indings of fact in preliminary proceedings of a criminal case will not be reversed if, after the conflicts in the testimony are resolved in favor of affirmance, there is sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the trial court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence." City of Fargo v. Thompson, 520 N.W.2d 578, 581 (N.D.1994) (citations omitted).

A

[¶ 7] The district court found, when the officers first arrived at the Montana home, they entered the home with the owner's permission. The officers "identified themselves and their purpose for wanting an interview with the defendant." Helmenstein invited officers to an office at the far end of the home. The office was furnished with a desk and a single chair. Helmenstein "occupied the chair while Officers Wooten and Haas conducted an interview of the defendant for approximately 45 minutes." The district court found the office door was open, no firearms were displayed, and neither officer blocked Helmenstein's "access route if he elected to leave."

[¶ 8] The officers then requested Helmenstein write a statement. During that time, with the owner's permission, the officers searched the home. While the officers were searching, Helmenstein "freely moved about the kitchen and living room areas of the mobile home." The officers discovered a firearm and money believed to be linked to the murder and robbery. After Helmenstein finished his statement, the "officers then requested an opportunity to further interview the defendant." The interview was conducted in the same office, with Helmenstein again occupying the lone chair.

[¶ 9] The officers advised Helmenstein of discrepancies in his statement and advised him of his Miranda rights. He "acknowledged he understood" those rights. Helmenstein "voluntarily agreed to continue" the interview and confessed to firing the handgun that caused the victim's death. The district court found this second interview lasted approximately forty minutes.

[¶ 10] Finally, the officers conducted an approximately 17-minute, tape-recorded interview of Helmenstein. The district court found approximately two hours had elapsed from the time the officers first arrived until they had completed the interviews and the search of the Montana home.

[¶ 11] The next day, Helmenstein was flown from Montana to Bismarck. When he arrived, shortly after 5:00 p.m., Helmenstein was again advised of his Miranda rights and was asked to walk through the murder scene. The district court found Helmenstein "agreed to voluntarily participate in" the murder scene review.

[¶ 12] Helmenstein argues he was awakened by four or five armed officers, was denied food and drink, and was subjected to lengthy interrogation when the officers first interviewed him. Helmenstein argues the four interrogations "crossed the line from zealous investigation to actual police misconduct" and the district court therefore erred in not suppressing his statements. The State argues Helmenstein was not in custody at the time of his first confession, notwithstanding the arresting officer's subjective belief that Helmenstein was not free to leave. The State further argues the confessions were not coerced but were made freely and voluntarily and the district court did not err in admitting the statements at trial.

B

[¶ 13] We first consider whether Helmenstein's confessions were obtained in violation of the United States Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). The constitutional triggers requiring police to provide Miranda warnings are custody and interrogation. Id. at 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602. Whether a person was in custody is a mixed question of law and fact and is fully reviewable on appeal. State v. Sabinash, 1998 ND 32, ¶ 14, 574 N.W.2d 827 (citations omitted). The test of custody is "formal arrest or a restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." Id. at ¶ 14 (citing State v. Eldred, 1997 ND 112, ¶ 10, 564 N.W.2d 283). The custody test is objective and does not depend on the arresting officer's subjective motive or thoughts. Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984); State v. Murray, 510 N.W.2d 107, 110 (N.D.1994).

[¶ 14] Whether a person was in custody at the time of a confession is a mixed question of law and fact and is fully reviewable on appeal. Sabinash, 1998 ND 32, ¶ 14, 574 N.W.2d 827 (citation omitted). When evaluating whether a person was in custody, "the only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation." Murray, 510 N.W.2d at 110 (citing Berkemer, 468 U.S. at 442, 104 S.Ct. 3138). The district court found "the defendant was not placed in custody until the second interview which occurred at the" Montana home, and "prior to placing the defendant in custody, law enforcement officers had in fact advised the defendant of his Miranda rights with the defendant acknowledging his understanding of the same and his willingness to continue the interview with law enforcement officers." That Helmenstein was provided Miranda warnings subsequent to the first interrogation is undisputed. Therefore, only the first interview of Helmenstein need be considered for custodial-interrogation analysis.

[¶ 15] The district court's findings amply set forth that Helmenstein was not in custody at the time of the first interview. Although one of the North Dakota officers present testified he did not believe Helmenstein was free to leave after the murder weapon had been discovered, our only inquiry is how a reasonable person "would have understood his situation." State v. Murray, 510 N.W.2d 107, 110 (N.D.1994) (citing Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984)).

[¶ 16] Helmenstein voluntarily participated in the interview, he invited officers to question him in an office at the far end of the home, the officers displayed no weapons, Helmenstein occupied the room's only chair, and the officers made no attempt to block his egress. These facts support the district court's conclusion that Helmenstein was not in custody. Further, the officers allowed Helmenstein to move freely about the kitchen and living room while they were searching the home.

[¶ 17] We conclude the district court's finding Helmenstein was not in custody is supported by "sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the trial court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence." City of Fargo v. Thompson, 520 N.W.2d 578, 581 (N.D.1994). Therefore, any statements Helmenstein made prior to receiving Miranda warnings were properly not excluded for lack of warnings.

C

[¶ 18] We next consider whether Helmenstein's confessions were voluntary. "[V]oluntariness of a confession depends upon questions of fact to be resolved by the trial court, and because the trial court is in a superior position to judge credibility and weight, we show great deference to the trial court's determination of voluntariness." State v. Taillon, 470 N.W.2d 226, 228 (N.D.1991) (citing State v. Pickar, 453 N.W.2d 783, 785 (N.D.1990); State v. Discoe, 334...

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