State v. Pitts

Decision Date04 August 2006
Docket NumberNo. 2D04-1202.,2D04-1202.
Citation936 So.2d 1111
PartiesSTATE of Florida, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. Samuel PITTS, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

Charles J. Crist, Jr., Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Helene S. Parnes, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Robert A. Norgard, Bartow, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

CANADY, Judge.

This interlocutory appeal arising from the prosecution of Samuel Pitts on double murder charges concerns the trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress statements made by Pitts to the police. The State appeals the trial court's ruling suppressing certain statements made by Pitts, and Pitts cross-appeals the trial court's ruling denying suppression of certain other statements. For the reasons explained below, we conclude that none of the statements at issue in the appeal and the cross-appeal should be suppressed. We therefore reverse on the issue raised by the State and affirm on the issue raised by Pitts.

I. Standard of Review

We begin with an acknowledgement of the applicable standard of review. "Appellate courts should accord a presumption of correctness to the trial court's rulings on motions to suppress with regard to the trial court's determination of historical facts, but appellate courts must independently review mixed questions of law and fact that ultimately determine constitutional issues." Schoenwetter v. State, 931 So.2d 857 (Fla.2006). A "trial court's determinations of historical fact" will be reversed "only if not supported by competent substantial evidence in the record." Connor v. State, 803 So.2d 598, 608 (Fla. 2001). But the trial court's "application of law to those facts" is subject to de novo review. Id.

II. Background
A. The Interview with Pitts1

The motion to suppress addressed statements made by Pitts during the course of an extended interview—or series of interviews—conducted by officers of the Polk County Sheriff's Department. Pitts, who has an IQ of 82, was 20 years old at the time of the interview. The police sought to interview Pitts after they received information linking him to a missing-persons case involving David Lee Green and James Felker, who had disappeared on April 21, 2000. The information available to the police indicated that Pitts may have been involved in pawning property owned by one of the missing young men and that Pitts might have knowledge concerning the abduction and murder of the missing men.

Based on this information, in the early morning—between 4:00 and 4:20 a.m.—of April 26, 2000, four officers went to Pitts' apartment to seek an interview. The officers' knock on the door of the apartment was answered by Pitts' sister. An officer explained to her that they were law enforcement officers and that they "need[ed] to speak with Sammy." Pitts, who had apparently been roused from his sleep by his sister, came to the door not fully dressed and looking as though he had just been awakened.

When Pitts was informed that the officers needed to speak with him and asked if he would "mind coming on down to the substation," he told the officers that he needed to get some additional clothing. Pitts went back into the apartment out of the sight of the officers who remained at the door. The officers never entered the apartment. After a "couple of minutes," Pitts returned to the door, walked out to the officers, and then walked to a sheriff's department vehicle. Pitts no longer appeared groggy; he seemed to be fully aware of what was taking place. The officers told Pitts that he could ride with them. Pitts took a seat in the front seat of the vehicle.

Pitts never expressed any reluctance to going with the officers. The officers used no threats or coercion to force Pitts to accompany them. Although the officers were wearing sidearms, they did not draw their weapons. Pitts was not handcuffed by the officers. As Pitts walked out of his apartment, one of the officers noticed that "he was shaking quite a bit." When the officer asked him "what's wrong," Pitts responded that he was "just cold."

The officers drove with Pitts to the sheriff's northwest substation, which was two or three miles from Pitts' apartment. At the substation, although Pitts was not left alone and would not have been free to wander around the substation alone, he was never put in a holding cell or a locked room. He remained without handcuffs. The interview at the substation was relatively brief—lasting from thirty minutes to an hour.

During the interview, Pitts was confronted with the fact that the officers knew he had pawned property that was owned by one of the missing young men. The officers also told Pitts that they believed that he knew the whereabouts of the missing young men and that he needed to tell the officers where the young men were. The officers were focused on the need to find the missing men. The officers did not raise their voices to Pitts, and the tone of the conversation was monotone. During this interview session, Pitts was slow to answer some questions, but he never said that he wanted to leave or that he did not want to talk to the officers. Pitts admitted to the officers that he had been a passenger in a car that was pursued unsuccessfully by the police—a car believed by the police to be the vehicle being used by the missing men when they disappeared.

Toward the end of this interview, when Pitts was told that the officers believed he had pawned property belonging to one of the missing men, Pitts admitted that he pawned items given to him by Tavares Wright, who is called T.J. Near the end of the interview, Pitts "began to become upset." Pitts did not sob uncontrollably but "just put his head down and began to cry. . . . [H]e just sat there and cried a little while." Although "not weeping," Pitts "had tears in his eyes and was upset." One of the interrogating officers then said to Pitts, "Sammy, when you stand up, I know you're going to take us to those kids, I know that's when you're going to take us to them." Subsequently, Pitts "stood up and said we need to go to I-4 and 33."

The officers then drove—with Pitts again sitting unhandcuffed in the front seat—to Highway 33 and "started heading north." As the officers and Pitts traveled along Highway 33, Pitts stated that T.J. had told Pitts that T.J. would bring the missing men "up here" but that Pitts "didn't know exactly where they were." Pitts "just believed that TJ would bring them up here." When the officers drove past Polk City, Pitts said, "this would be too far." As the officers then proceeded back past Polk City, Pitts said, "I don't know where they are."

After stopping at a sheriffs' department facility in Polk City, where Pitts used the restroom, the officers drove with Pitts to the Central District Substation at the Bartow Air Base to obtain a taped statement from Pitts. The officers arrived at the Central District Substation with Pitts at about 7:00 a.m. Pitts and the officers went to an interview room in the substation, and Pitts agreed to give a sworn taped statement. The officers used the same tone of voice that they used during the first interview.

In the taped interview, Pitts admitted that he had been with T.J. in the car that was chased by the police on the day the young men disappeared. He further admitted that T.J. had given him "a black bag with some tools," which Pitts had then pawned. But Pitts denied any involvement in the disappearance of the missing young men. Pitts stated that T.J. had earlier said he was "thinking about doing something illegal." According to Pitts, T.J. had said "he might get a car" and had made a reference to "leaving no witnesses." In response, Pitts had asked T.J. "where would you take them," and T.J. had replied that he would "probably hide the car somewhere in Polk City." Pitts further stated, however, that T.J. had said that he in fact took the "people who were in the car" to Polk City to a road off to the side. Pitts stated that T.J. had not mentioned that he had shot the people who had been in the car. Pitts claimed that he had only been in the car with T.J. for "about 10 or 20 minutes" and that he "never left Lakeland." Pitts also asserted that he did not think the black bag of tools was stolen.

At the conclusion of this taped interview, Pitts stated that he had not been promised anything to make his statement, that he was present of his own free will, and that the statement had been made voluntarily. The taped statement ended at 7:29 a.m.

After Pitts had given the taped statement, the interrogating officers left the interview room. Captain W.J. Martin, the supervising officer, then conducted a further interview, which was not taped. Martin testified that he decided he "would go in and sit down and talk to him and see what I thought about what he had to say." Martin observed that Pitts "was fairly well alert" and "attentive" to what Martin said. Martin said that he did not raise his voice to Pitts and that he used a "normal tone of voice." Martin told Pitts that the objective of the police "was to try to find these boys, that they had been missing for some time now." Pitts responded that "all he knew was they were in a grove somewhere in Polk City off to the right," as he had been told by T.J. Pitts added that he did not "know much about the area," that "TJ did," and that "it was dark." Martin's suspicions being further aroused by this comment, he then said to Pitts, "Sammy, I have been doing this a long time now, I think you know more than what you're telling us. I actually believe that you were there."

Pitts maintained his story that all he knew was what he had been told by T.J. Martin then wrote down on a pad he was using the statement that "TJ says Sammy killed these guys." In fact, T.J. had not made such an accusation against Pitts. After telling Pitts...

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