State v. Oney

Decision Date25 November 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-367.,07-367.
Citation989 A.2d 995,2009 VT 116
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. James C. ONEY.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

James P. Mongeon, Rutland County State's Attorney, Rutland, and Jane Woodruff, Executive Director, State's Attorneys and Sheriffs Department, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Allison N. Fulcher and Matthew Keister, Law Clerk, of Martin & Associates, Barre, for Defendant-Appellant.



¶ 1. Defendant appeals the Rutland District Court's denial of his motion to suppress statements made at a police interview, arguing that the police violated his rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and Chapter I, Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution. The trial court found that defendant was not in custody at the time the incriminating statements were made and denied defendant's motion. We affirm.

¶ 2. The material facts are not in dispute. In July 2006, defendant became a person of interest in a series of fires in the Rutland area. On July 26, the night three of these fires were set, a police officer approached defendant at a local convenience store and asked if he could have a word with him outside. Defendant agreed. The officer asked defendant about the fires, and defendant denied setting them. The officer told defendant that he was not under arrest and asked if he would voluntarily accompany the officer to the police department. Again, defendant agreed. The officer loaded defendant's bicycle into the police car and drove defendant, who sat in the front seat of the car, to the department. Defendant, unrestrained, entered the department through a nonpublic door.

¶ 3. Two police sergeants spoke with defendant in an interview room at the police department. They did not give Miranda warnings to defendant at any point in the interview. They closed the interview room door, but did not lock it. They did not restrain defendant during the interview, nor did they obstruct his access to the door. At the start of the conversation, both sergeants emphasized that defendant was there on his own free will and that he was free to go at any time. Defendant acknowledged that he understood. One officer then addressed the three fires that occurred that night, telling defendant that he had been seen leaving the scene of the second fire and in the area of the third. Defendant thereafter admitted to setting these three fires. During this portion of the conversation, one of the sergeants starting videotaping the interview.

¶ 4. After defendant's confession to these fires, an officer told defendant, "I want to talk to you for a little while longer." The officer immediately began discussing other recent fires in the Rutland area, stating that they had evidence that tied defendant to many, but not all, of these other fires. Subsequent to this shift in the conversation, defendant again affirmed that he came to the station of his own free will, and that he had been told that he was free to leave at any time. At 11:29 p.m., defendant stated, "I still think I should have a lawyer here." One of the officers responded, "Are you asking for a lawyer or do you want to still talk about this—because to me you're not sure." Defendant did not respond to this question and the interview continued. The officer told defendant that the police had surveillance tapes of several of the earlier fires. Subsequently, amid denying his involvement in numerous other fires, defendant admitted to setting three additional blazes. At 12:15 a.m., defendant stated that he would like to leave, and one of the sergeants prevented his departure by stating, "We're not done yet." Up until that point, the officers had given defendant repeated assurances that he was free to leave. Although defendant's departure was delayed, defendant was soon thereafter given a citation and told he was free to go.

¶ 5. Defendant was later charged with six counts of arson of various degrees under 13 V.S.A. §§ 503-505. The first three counts were for the three fires on July 26, 2006. The fourth count was for a dumpster fire at a restaurant on June 28, the fifth for burning a building on May 12, and the sixth for a dumpster fire at the Rutland Middle School on April 25. Counts two and three were for attempted arson and were misdemeanor charges; the others were felonies.

¶ 6. Arguing that his constitutional rights to not incriminate himself and to the advice of an attorney had been violated, defendant moved in the trial court to suppress his statements to the police. The trial court determined that defendant was deprived of his freedom of action at 12:15 a.m., when defendant stated a desire to leave and the police responded that they were not done yet. The trial court ruled that all of defendant's statements made before 12:15 a.m. were admissible, and it suppressed the subsequent statements.

¶ 7. Defendant then entered into a plea agreement, reserving his right to appeal his convictions on counts four, five, and six, which correspond to the incriminating statements made between 11:29 p.m. and 12:15 a.m.

¶ 8. On appeal, defendant argues that after he confessed to the first three fires, he was then in custody, and since no Miranda warnings were given, his subsequent confessions are inadmissible. Defendant also argues that his statement at 11:29 p.m. constituted a request to speak with an attorney and that the officers' failure to honor his request violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to counsel.1

¶ 9. We first address defendant's arguments that his Fifth Amendment rights, as specified in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), were violated.2 This discussion encompasses both of defendant's arguments that his confessions are inadmissible because they were given without Miranda warnings and because he invoked his right to counsel.3 The key inquiry for the resolution of both issues is whether defendant was in custody at the time of the confession. See State v. Pontbriand, 2005 VT 20, ¶ 10, 178 Vt. 120, 878 A.2d 227 ("Under Miranda, as currently applied, the police must stop questioning a suspect who is in custody after he or she requests an attorney. No such requirement exists, however, for suspects who are not in custody." (citations omitted)); State v. Garbutt, 173 Vt. 277, 282, 790 A.2d 444, 448 (2001) ("Suspects not in custody are not entitled to Miranda warnings.").

¶ 10. Whether a suspect is in custody requires "an objective inquiry into the totality of the circumstances to determine if a reasonable person would believe he or she were free to leave or to refuse to answer police questioning." State v. Willis, 145 Vt. 459, 475, 494 A.2d 108, 117 (1985). The inquiry focuses on the "coercive nature of the physical setting of police questioning." Id. at 473, 494 A.2d at 116.

¶ 11. In reviewing a motion to suppress, we review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo and its findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard. Pontbriand, 2005 VT 20, ¶ 12, 178 Vt. 120, 878 A.2d 227. "Therefore, the trial court's findings of fact regarding the course of the interview receive deference, but its ultimate legal determination that the totality of the circumstances would have led a reasonable person to believe that he or she was in custody is reviewed de novo." Id.

¶ 12. Defendant does not argue that he was in custody before 11:26 p.m.4 He asserts that he was deprived of his freedom of action when the sergeant said, "I want to talk to you for a little while longer" and transitioned the conversation to earlier fires. He argues that a reasonable person in a small, windowless room at the police station, after having confessed to three crimes, would not believe that he was free to leave, despite the officer's statements to the contrary.

¶ 13. We affirm that defendant was not in custody when he made the incriminating statements, considering the trial court's uncontroverted factual findings regarding the circumstances of defendant's questioning. The court made the following findings of fact: (1) defendant voluntarily left the convenience store to talk with the police; (2) defendant voluntarily went to the station and interview room; (3) the police could not have made it any clearer to him that he was there voluntarily, that he was free to leave, and that he could leave; (4) defendant was not handcuffed and had free access to an unlocked door; and (5) there was "no evidence on the video or from any testimony that he was deprived of his freedom of action in a significant way" before 12:15 a.m. None of the findings are clearly erroneous,5 and as such, we are bound by them. Pontbriand, 2005 VT 20, ¶ 12, 178 Vt. 120, 878 A.2d 227.6

¶ 14. We are not persuaded by defendant's claim that a reasonable person would believe that the police would prevent him from leaving after having confessed to three crimes. A noncustodial situation does not become custodial automatically because the interviewee has confessed to a crime. See, e.g., United States v. Chee, 514 F.3d 1106, 1114 (10th Cir. 2008) (holding that defendant was not in custody even after confessing to sexual assault). A confession is just one of the circumstances to consider in evaluating whether a reasonable person would believe he or she was free to leave. See id.; Graham v. United States, 950 A.2d 717, 730-31 (D.C.2008); State v. Champion, 533 N.W.2d 40, 43 (Minn.1995). We acknowledge that once a suspect confesses to committing a serious criminal act, this fact is significant in this evaluation. See, e.g., State v. Pitts, 936 So.2d 1111, 1134 (Fla. Dist.Ct.App.2006) (holding that suspect in custody after confessing to "serious crime"). However, the severity of the crime confessed to affects the weight we attribute to this factor. See Graham, 950 A.2d at 731 (concluding that a reasonable person would not have perceived himself under arrest after confessing to "only a misdemeanor...

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  • State v. Lambert
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • April 30, 2021
    ... ... 30. Second, defendant maintained his innocence throughout the entire interview and never confessed to the crimes alleged. Confessions are relevant to custody because they relate to "whether a reasonable person would believe he or she was free to leave." State v. Oney , 2009 VT 116, 14, 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 995 ; see also Muntean , 2010 VT 88, 28, 189 Vt. 50, 12 A.3d 518 (acknowledging that confession to serious criminal act is significant for custody determination). Here, although the detectives repeatedly accused defendant of engaging in a serious criminal ... ...
  • Thomas v. State
    • United States
    • Maryland Court of Appeals
    • October 26, 2012
    ... ... Oney, 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 995, 9991000 (2009) (A non-custodial situation does not become custodial automatically because the interviewee has confessed to a crime ... A confession is just one of the circumstances to consider in evaluating whether a reasonable person would feel free to leave.). [429 Md ... ...
  • Mills v. State
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    • Wyoming Supreme Court
    • December 13, 2022
    ... ... Bartelt , 379 Wis.2d 588, 906 N.W.2d 684, 698 (2018) ; State v. Edwards , 299 Conn. 419, 11 A.3d 116, 125 (2011) ; State v. Thomas , 202 Md.App. 545, 33 A.3d 494, 512-14 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2011), aff'd , 429 Md. 246, 55 A.3d 680 (2012) ; Muntean , 12 A.3d at 529 ; State v. Oney , 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 995, 1000 (2009) ; Commonwealth v. Hilton , 443 Mass. 597, 823 N.E.2d 383, 396 (2005) ; People v. Carroll , 318 Ill.App.3d 135, 252 Ill.Dec. 383, 742 N.E.2d 1247, 1250 (2001) ; Jackson v. State , 272 Ga. 191, 528 S.E.2d 232, 235 (2000) ; State v. Linck , 708 N.E.2d ... ...
  • State v. Thomas
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    • December 21, 2011
    ... ... Other courts take the view that a confession by a suspect does not automatically transform a noncustodial interview into a custodial interrogation, but rather, it is merely one factor in the totality of the circumstances. In State v. Oney, 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 995, 9991000 (2009), the Supreme Court of Vermont opined: A noncustodial situation does not become custodial automatically because the interviewee has confessed to a crime. See, e.g., United States v. Chee, 514 F.3d 1106, 1114 (10th Cir.2008) (holding that defendant was not ... ...
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