State v. Hieu Tran, No. 11–341.

Docket NºNo. 11–341.
Citation2012 VT 104, 71 A.3d 1201
Case DateJanuary 15, 2013
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

71 A.3d 1201
2012 VT 104

STATE of Vermont
v.
HIEU TRAN.

No. 11–341.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

Dec. 21, 2012.
Motion for Reargument Denied Jan. 15, 2013.


[71 A.3d 1202]


Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Chittenden County State's Attorney, Andrew R. Strauss, Deputy State's Attorney, and Ben Chater, Law Clerk, Burlington, for Plaintiff–Appellant.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Anna Saxman, Deputy Defender General, and Laura Ethington, Legal Intern, Montpelier, for Defendant–Appellee.


Present: REIBER, C.J., DOOLEY, SKOGLUND, BURGESS and ROBINSON, JJ.

[71 A.3d 1203]



SKOGLUND, J.

¶ 1. This interlocutory appeal raises the question of whether defendant Hieu Tran was in police custody when two detectives questioned him in a police cruiser for one hour as part of an investigation into an assault and attempted robbery. The trial court concluded that the interview was a custodial interrogation conducted without the warnings guaranteed by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), and granted defendant's motion to suppress. On appeal, the State argues that no warnings were necessary because defendant voluntarily spoke with detectives and was not in custody during the interview. We affirm.

¶ 2. Defendant was charged with assault and attempted robbery in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 608(a). Defendant filed a motion to suppress statements he made to police during an interview in March 2011. Defendant claimed that the statements were made in violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution and Chapter I, Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution because police conducted a custodial interrogation without providing defendant with the necessary Miranda warnings. The court held a hearing on the motion in August 2011. At the hearing, the only witness was one of the police detectives who interviewed defendant. In addition, a recording and transcript of the police interview were admitted.

¶ 3. At the suppression hearing, the detective described the following facts concerning the investigation and the challenged interview. In the early afternoon of March 23, two police detectives drove in an unmarked police car to defendant's residence to question him about his possible involvement in an assault and robbery that had occurred a couple of days earlier.

¶ 4. Prior to the interview, police had already compiled information regarding the assault and robbery from the victim, the victim's friend who was present at the scene, and a person in the neighborhood who witnessed the altercation. The investigation started when police were dispatched to an emergency room where a man was being treated for an assault, which required stitches on his hand. The information from the man led detectives to the place where the incident occurred. After speaking with a witness at the scene and the injured man's friend, police understood that the assault occurred during a drug transaction. Two perpetrators were involved, and one carried a gun. The victim's friend identified defendant as the suspect without a gun. Police recovered a baseball cap from the scene that reportedly belonged to defendant.

¶ 5. When the detectives arrived at defendant's residence, defendant's mother indicated that he was not at home and she was going to pick him up. Police followed her car when she left to get defendant. When defendant arrived back at home, police again went to the door and defendant came out onto the porch. Police asked defendant to meet in their car. The detective testified that he decided to conduct the interview in the police car to be more comfortable and to afford some privacy from defendant's mother and brother, who were at home. Defendant entered the front passenger seat. The officer could not remember if defendant or the other detective had shut the front door. The door remained unlocked during the interview. The detective testified he did not tell defendant that he was not free to leave, but on cross-examination agreed he did not tell defendant that he was free to leave. One detective sat in the driver's seat, and the other sat in the back seat. Both questioned defendant.

[71 A.3d 1204]

¶ 6. At the beginning of the interview, the detectives told defendant that they had spoken to the victim and other witnesses, that they knew something had happened and there was a fight, and that they wanted defendant to have a chance to explain his side of the story. The detectives asked defendant how the drug deal was set up. Defendant explained that the victim had initiated it by calling him. The detectives told defendant that they “already have the answers to some questions” and “know how it went down and where it went down and all of that stuff.” In response to questions about the gun, defendant stated that the gun was fake and plastic. At one point, one detective directed defendant not to play with his cell phone during the interview. The detectives explained to defendant that he could be charged with armed robbery even if he was not holding the gun because he was there and part of the deal. Defendant made little response to the questioning, stating that he did not have anything to say, and did not know or remember what happened. At one point, he admitted that he was there, and again stated the gun was not real. He admitted he lost his hat at the scene.

¶ 7. The detective testified that prior to the interview he believed there was probable cause to arrest defendant. The interview was recorded and lasted for about one hour. At the end of the interview, defendant was arrested.

¶ 8. The court made brief oral findings on the record. The court found that the circumstances of the questioning created a police-dominated atmosphere. The court found several factors demonstrated that defendant was in custody at the time of the interview and not free to leave. First, the court found it significant that prior to the interview police had enough information to arrest defendant and were, in fact, planning to arrest defendant at the close of the interview. The court emphasized that defendant would not have felt free to leave insofar as he was young, and had been told by police that they had information linking him to the assault and robbery. Finally, the court pointed to the physical conditions of the interrogation: two officers questioning defendant in a small space—a police car—for one hour.

¶ 9. The court subsequently denied the State's motion to reconsider the suppression decision. The State then moved for permission to appeal, asserting that several statements made during the interview were substantial proof of a material fact relevant to the proceeding. See 13 V.S.A. § 7403(c), (d) (allowing State to appeal from granting of motion to suppress in felony case as long as State certifies that suppressed evidence is substantial proof of relevant material fact or loss of evidence would seriously impede proceeding); V.R.A.P. 5(b)(1). According to the State, these facts included defendant's statements that he set up the drug deal, saw the gun that was used during the assault and robbery, was present at the scene, and lost his hat at the place where the assault and robbery took place. The trial court granted the motion, and this Court accepted the State's appeal.

¶ 10. On appeal, the State argues that the court's order was error because the court erroneously considered the detective's subjective belief in defendant's guilt and defendant's subjective characteristics like his age. The State argues there was no custody because a reasonable person would have felt free to leave. Our review of the granting of a motion to suppress involves a two-step analysis. State v. Lawrence, 2003 VT 68, ¶ 8, 175 Vt. 600, 834 A.2d 10 (mem.). We defer to the trial court's factual findings and will affirm them unless clearly erroneous. Id. The underlying legal issue, such as whether

[71 A.3d 1205]

there was a custodial interrogation, is a legal question and our review “is plenary and nondeferential.” State v. Sole, 2009 VT 24, ¶ 17, 185 Vt. 504, 974 A.2d 587; see Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99, 112–13, 116 S.Ct. 457, 133 L.Ed.2d 383 (1995) (holding that question of whether suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes is “a mixed question of law and fact,” qualifying for independent review (quotation marks omitted)).

¶ 11. In the landmark decision of Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court held that to adequately protect Fifth Amendment rights police are required to advise suspects of their rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present prior to any custodial interrogation.1384 U.S. at 444–45, 86 S.Ct. 1602. “Suspects not in custody are not entitled to Miranda warnings.” State v. Garbutt, 173 Vt. 277, 282, 790 A.2d 444, 448 (2001). The custody determination involves an objective test based on “ ‘the totality of the circumstances.’ ” State v. Oney, 2009 VT 116, ¶ 10, 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 995 (quoting State v. Willis, 145 Vt. 459, 475, 494 A.2d 108, 117 (1985)). The key inquiry is whether “ ‘a reasonable person would believe he or she were free to leave or to refuse to answer police questioning.’ ” Id. (quoting Willis, 145 Vt. at 475, 494 A.2d at 117). In the absence of a formal arrest, the critical question is whether law enforcement officials acted or spoke in a manner that conveyed the message that they would not permit the individual to leave. United States v. Ali, 86 F.3d 275, 276 (2d Cir.1996).

¶ 12. In State v. Muntean, 2010 VT 88, ¶ 19, 189 Vt. 50, 12 A.3d 518, we identified several factors to consider in making the custody determination. These include: (1) the location of the interview; (2) the interviewer's communication to the suspect of his belief in the suspect's guilt; (3) whether the suspect arrives at the interview voluntarily; and (4) “whether the police told the suspect that he was free to terminate the interview at any point and leave.” Muntean listed other indicators of custody including:

the extent to which the suspect was confronted...

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14 practice notes
  • State v. McKenna, No. 2013–009
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of New Hampshire
    • September 9, 2014
    ...authorities, rather than the suspect, custody is more likely to exist." Griffin, 922 F.2d at 1351 ; see State v. Hieu Tran, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201, 1207 (2012) ; cf. Hammond, 144 N.H. at 404, 742 A.2d 532 (finding relevant to no custody determination that defendant drove himself to polic......
  • State v. Powers, No. 15-076
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 14, 2016
    ...police officer believed that defendant was guilty. 2010 VT 88, ¶¶ 28–29, 189 Vt. 50, 12 A.3d 518 ; see also State v. Hieu Tran , 2012 VT 104, ¶¶ 15–16, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201 (finding custodial setting where, during interview, detectives "explain[ed] they knew [the defendant] was involve......
  • State v. Lambert, 20-091
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 30, 2021
    ...first, and most important, factor—whether the suspect was told he was free to terminate the conversation and leave. State v. Hieu Tran, 2012 VT 104, ¶ 14, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201. This factor is pivotal in our analysis because "[a] reasonable person's belief about whether the person is fr......
  • State v. Kolts, No. 17-291
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • December 14, 2018
    ..."critical question" is whether law enforcement conveyed, through words or deeds, that defendant was not free to leave. State v. Hieu Tran, 2012 VT 104, ¶ 11, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201 (explaining this factor "necessarily" influences whether 205 A.3d 510reasonable person would feel free to l......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
14 cases
  • State v. McKenna, No. 2013–009
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of New Hampshire
    • September 9, 2014
    ...authorities, rather than the suspect, custody is more likely to exist." Griffin, 922 F.2d at 1351 ; see State v. Hieu Tran, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201, 1207 (2012) ; cf. Hammond, 144 N.H. at 404, 742 A.2d 532 (finding relevant to no custody determination that defendant drove himself to polic......
  • State v. Powers, No. 15-076
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 14, 2016
    ...police officer believed that defendant was guilty. 2010 VT 88, ¶¶ 28–29, 189 Vt. 50, 12 A.3d 518 ; see also State v. Hieu Tran , 2012 VT 104, ¶¶ 15–16, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201 (finding custodial setting where, during interview, detectives "explain[ed] they knew [the defendant] was involve......
  • State v. Lambert, 20-091
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 30, 2021
    ...first, and most important, factor—whether the suspect was told he was free to terminate the conversation and leave. State v. Hieu Tran, 2012 VT 104, ¶ 14, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201. This factor is pivotal in our analysis because "[a] reasonable person's belief about whether the person is fr......
  • State v. Kolts, No. 17-291
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • December 14, 2018
    ..."critical question" is whether law enforcement conveyed, through words or deeds, that defendant was not free to leave. State v. Hieu Tran, 2012 VT 104, ¶ 11, 193 Vt. 148, 71 A.3d 1201 (explaining this factor "necessarily" influences whether 205 A.3d 510reasonable person would feel free to l......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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