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Supreme Judicial Court Issues Important Ruling on Police Interrogations
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an important decision concerning police interrogations. In Commonwealth v. Smith, the highest court in the Commonwealth reversed a defendant’s murder and attempted armed robbery convictions, and in doing so issued a clear reminder about the importance of honoring a suspect’s Miranda rights, specifically his or her right to remain silent. The case also raises important questions for criminal defense lawyers and serves as a reminder to those charged with crimes that it does not help to talk to the police without first consulting a lawyer.
In Smith, the defendant was accused of murdering and attempting to rob a female in what the police believed to be a drug deal inside of a car. The crux of the case, however, did not focus on what happened in the car, but what took place inside the interrogation room at the police station.
After some investigation, detectives came to believe that the suspect—Donovan Smith—was responsible for shooting and killing the victim. The police brought Donovan, 18, into the station for an interrogation that lasted just over an hour and a half. The interrogation was recorded on audio and video.
During the interrogation, police detectives told Donovan false information to try and get him to confess to the murder. Among other things, the detectives said they had evidence of Donovan’s DNA and fingerprints in the car. This was not true.
While the police can technically mislead a suspect with certain false facts, they are not allowed to violate a suspect’s Miranda rights—the right to know what you say can be used against you, the right to remain silent, and the right to a lawyer, even if you can’t afford one.
During the interrogation, Donovan told the police he was “done talking” and that he “didn’t want to talk no more.” At that point, the Supreme Judicial Court said, the police should have honored Donovan’s request and stopped questioning him and ended the interrogation. But they didn’t.
The detectives continued their interrogation and attempted to manipulate Donovan by saying this was an opportunity for him to give his side of the story, “to maybe lighten the load, get a little bit off yourself.” Donovan gave in. Over the course of nearly an hour, Donovan made incriminating statements that were eventually used to convict him at trial.
Because the detectives failed to honor Donovan’s request to stop talking—his invoking the right to remain silent and not incriminate himself —the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the police violated his Miranda rights and reversed his convictions.
The Smith case raises important questions and reminders for criminal defendants and their lawyers. For lawyers, the case highlights the standard used to determine whether a suspect successfully invoked their right to remain silent. Traditionally, the test—was the request made clearly and unequivocally—has been strict. However, Smith appears to indicate that Donovan’s request, “I’m done…I’m done talking…” should be sufficient. For criminal suspects, even those who are innocent, it is a reminder that talking to the police only usually does more harm than good.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, it is important to talk with a criminal defense lawyer before having any communication with the police.
Coughlin Law Group, P.C., is a criminal defense firm with offices in Boston, Gloucester, and Cape Cod. Contact Coughlin Law Group today at 617-758-8888 or online to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney.