©2012 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
In Bobby v. Dixon, [i] the United States Supreme Court reviewed a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit involving the use of a confession against Archie Dixon at his trial for murder. The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit had issued a writ of habeas corpus in Dixon’s benefit finding that his confession to police should not have been allowed due to a violation of the rules announced in Miranda v. Arizona.[ii]
Archie Dixon and Tim Hoffner murdered Chris Hammer in order to steal his car. Dixon and Hoffner beat Hammer, tied him up, and buried him alive, pushing the struggling Hammer down into his grave while they shoveled dirt on top of him. Dixon then used Hammer’s birth certificate and social security card to obtain a state identification card in Hammer’s name. After using that identification card to establish ownership of Hammer’s car, Dixon sold the vehicle for $2,800. Hammer’s mother reported her son missing the day after his murder. While investigating Hammer’s disappearance, police had various encounters with Dixon, three of which are relevant here. On November 4, 1993, a police detective spoke with Dixon at a local police station. It is undisputed that this was a chance encounter–Dixon was apparently visiting the police station to retrieve his own car, which had been impounded for a traffic violation. The detective issued Miranda warnings to Dixon and then asked to talk to him about Hammer’s disappearance. Dixon declined to answer questions without his lawyer present and left the station.
As their investigation continued, police determined that Dixon had sold Hammer’s car and forged Hammer’s signature when cashing the check he received in that sale. Police arrested Dixon for forgery on the morning of November 9. Beginning at 11:30 a.m. detectives intermittently interrogated Dixon over several hours, speaking with him for about 45 minutes total. Prior to the interrogation, the detectives had decided not to provide Dixon with Miranda warnings for fear that Dixon would again refuse to speak with them.
Dixon readily admitted to obtaining the identification card in Hammer’s name and signing Hammer’s name on the check, but said that Hammer had given him permission to sell the car. Dixon claimed not to know where Hammer was, although he said he thought Hammer might have left for Tennessee. The detectives challenged the plausibility of Dixon’s tale and told Dixon that Tim Hoffner was providing them more useful information. At one point a detective told Dixon that ‘now is the time to say’ whether he had any involvement in Hammer’s disappearance because ‘if Tim starts cutting a deal over there, this is kinda like, a bus leaving. The first one that gets on it is the only one that’s gonna get on.’ Dixon responded that, if Hoffner knew anything about Hammer’s disappearance, Hoffner had not told him. Dixon insisted that he had told police everything he knew and that he had ‘[n]othing whatsoever’ to do with Hammer’s disappearance. At approximately 3:30 p.m. the interrogation concluded, and the detectives brought Dixon to a correctional facility where he was booked on a forgery charge.
The same afternoon, Hoffner led police to Hammer’s grave. Hoffner claimed that Dixon had told him that Hammer was buried there. After concluding their interview with Hoffner and releasing him, the police had Dixon transported back to the police station.
Dixon arrived at the police station at about 7:30 p.m. Prior to any police questioning, Dixon stated that he had heard the police had found a body and asked whether Hoffner was in custody. The police told Dixon that Hoffner was not, at which point Dixon said, ‘I talked to my attorney, and I want to tell you what happened.’ The police read Dixon his Miranda rights, obtained a signed waiver of those rights, and spoke with Dixon for about half an hour. At 8 p.m. the police, now using a tape recorder, again advised Dixon of his Miranda rights. In a detailed confession, Dixon admitted to murdering Hammer but attempted to pin the lion’s share of the blame on Hoffner.
In reviewing the case, the Supreme Court looked at the three distinct interrogations. The Court noted that the first bit of questioning occurred when Dixon was at the police station picking up his car which had been impounded. Although the detective issued Miranda warnings and Dixon stated he wanted to speak with his attorney, the Court concluded that Dixon was not in custody during this chance encounter and therefore could not anticipatorily exercise his rights under Miranda. Thus, although the warnings had been given and Dixon had exercised his right to counsel, the Court concluded that Miranda did not apply and therefore law enforcement was not precluded from approaching Dixon again for questioning.
The United States Court of Appeals had also found a violation of the Fifth Amendment by the detectives urging Dixon to cut a deal and by misleading him to believe that Hoffner was providing information. The United States Supreme Court criticized the 6th Circuit with respect to their finding a violation of the Fifth Amendment, asserting:
The Sixth Circuit cited no precedent of this Court–or any court–holding that this common police tactic is unconstitutional. (‘[T]he Court has refused to find that a defendant who confesses, after being falsely told that his codefendant has turned State’s evidence, does so involuntarily’). Because no holding of this Court suggests, much less clearly establishes, that police may not urge a suspect to confess before another suspect does so, the Sixth Circuit had no authority to issue the writ on this ground.
The Court thus held that to date there is no precedent supporting an argument that the Fifth Amendment is violated when law enforcement urges a suspect to confess by falsely telling the suspect that a confederate is providing information.
The Court then turned to the 6th Circuit’s finding that the second, unwarned interrogation regarding the forgery had impacted the third warned confession regarding the murder.
The Court detailed this issue as follows:
Third, the Sixth Circuit held that the Ohio Supreme Court unreasonably applied this Court’s precedent in Elstad. In that case, a suspect who had not received Miranda warnings confessed to burglary as police took him into custody. Approximately an hour later, after he had received Miranda warnings, the suspect again confessed to the same burglary. This Court held that the later, warned confession was admissible because “there is no warrant for presuming coercive effect where the suspect’s initial inculpatory statement, though technically in violation of Miranda, was voluntary. The relevant inquiry is whether, in fact, the second [warned] [statement was also voluntarily made.” As the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion explained, the circumstances surrounding Dixon’s interrogations demonstrate that his statements were voluntary. During Dixon’s first interrogation, he received several breaks, was given water and offered food, and was not abused or threatened. He freely acknowledged that he had forged Hammer’s name, even stating that the police were “welcome” to that information, and he had no difficulty denying that he had anything to do with Hammer’s disappearance. Prior to his second interrogation, Dixon made an unsolicited declaration that he had spoken with his attorney and wanted to tell the police what had happened to Hammer. Then, before giving his taped confession, Dixon twice received Mirandawarnings and signed a waiver-of-rights form which stated that he was acting of his own free will. The Ohio Supreme Court recognized that Dixon’s first interrogation involved “an intentional Mirandaviolation.” The court concluded, however, that “as in Elstad, the breach of the Miranda procedures here involved no actual compulsion” and thus there was no reason to suppress Dixon’s later, warned confession.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed, believing that Dixon’s confession was inadmissible under Elstad because it was the product of a “deliberate question-first, warn-later strategy.” In so holding, the Sixth Circuit relied heavily on this Court’s decision in Missouri v. Seibert. In Seibert, police employed a two-step strategy to reduce the effect of Miranda warnings: A detective exhaustively questioned Seibert until she confessed to murder and then, after a 15- to 20-minute break, gave Seibert Miranda warnings and led her to repeat her prior confession. The Court held that Seibert’s second confession was inadmissible as evidence against her even though it was preceded by a Miranda warning. A plurality of the Court reasoned that “[u]pon hearing warnings only in the aftermath of interrogation and just after making a confession, a suspect would hardly think he had a genuine right to remain silent, let alone persist in so believing once the police began to lead him over the same ground again.” (detailing a “series of relevant facts that bear on whether Miranda warnings delivered midstream could be effective enough to accomplish their object”). Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment, noting he “would apply a narrower test applicable only in the infrequent case . . . in which the two-step interrogation technique was used in a calculated way to undermine the Miranda warning.”
The Court went on to distinguish the interrogations of Dixon from those of Siebert. The Court wrote:
In this case, no two-step interrogation technique of the type that concerned the Court in Seibert undermined the Miranda warnings Dixon received. In Seibert, the suspect’s first, unwarned interrogation left “little, if anything, of incriminating potential left unsaid,” making it “unnatural” not to “repeat at the second stage what had been said before.” But in this case Dixon steadfastly maintained during his first, unwarned interrogation that he had “[n]othing whatsoever” to do with Hammer’s disappearance. Thus, unlike in Seibert, there is no concern here that police gave Dixon Miranda warnings and then led him to repeat an earlier murder confession, because there was no earlier confession to repeat. Indeed, Dixon contradicted his prior unwarned statements when he confessed to Hammer’s murder. Nor is there any evidence that police used Dixon’s earlier admission to forgery to induce him to waive his right to silence later: Dixon declared his desire to tell police what happened to Hammer before the second interrogation session even began. As the Ohio Supreme Court reasonably concluded, there was simply “no nexus” between Dixon’s unwarned admission to forgery and his later, warned confession to murder.
Moreover, in Seibert the Court was concerned that the Miranda warnings did not “effectively advise the suspect that he had a real choice about giving an admissible statement” because the unwarned and warned interrogations blended into one “continuum.” Given all the circumstances of this case, that is not so here. Four hours passed between Dixon’s unwarned interrogation and his receipt of Miranda rights, during which time he traveled from the police station to a separate jail and back again; claimed to have spoken to his lawyer; and learned that police were talking to his accomplice and had found Hammer’s body. Things had changed. Under Seibert, this significant break in time and dramatic change in circumstances created “a new and distinct experience,” ensuring that Dixon’s prior, unwarned interrogation did not undermine the effectiveness of the Miranda warnings he received before confessing to Hammer’s murder.
In reversing the 6th Circuit’s decision the Court concluded:
The admission of Dixon’s murder confession was consistent with this Court’s precedents: Dixon received Miranda warnings before confessing to Hammer’s murder; the effectiveness of those warnings was not impaired by the sort of “two-step interrogation technique” condemned in Seibert; and there is no evidence that any of Dixon’s statements was the product of actual coercion. That does not excuse the detectives’ decision not to give Dixon Miranda warnings before his first interrogation. But the Ohio courts recognized that failure and imposed the appropriate remedy: exclusion of Dixon’s forgery confession and the attendant statements given without the benefit of Miranda warnings. Because no precedent of this Court required Ohio to do more, the Sixth Circuit was without authority to overturn the reasoned judgment of the State’s highest court.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i]Bobby v. Dixon, ___U.S.___; 132 S. Ct. 26 (2011).
[ii]Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).