On January 11, 2021, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided Harper v. State[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to non-custodial and custodial interviews of criminal suspects. In Harper, a 20-year-old woman, Thandiwe Hunt was reported as a missing person. Harper was Hunt’s boyfriend. On February 2, 2011, a postal worker discovered a suspicious object in a wooded lot, and called the police. The police opened the bag and discovered a naked, deceased woman, later identified as Hunt. During the investigation, the police learned that Harper had been Hunt’s boyfriend. According to Hunt’s mother, she wanted to leave him but was afraid. Her mother had heard them “tussling” as she spoke to Hunt on the phone, on January 30, 2011. This was the last time she heard from Hunt and Hunt ceased posting on social media.
On March 6, 2011, a detective and a patrol officer located Harper at a convenience store. According to the detective, they asked Harper if he would mind coming to police headquarters to talk about a missing person case. The detective described Harper as acting “really nice.” He said that he didn’t mind going to talk to the detective. Harper willingly got in the backseat of the police car. He was not told he was under arrest and not handcuffed. At police headquarters, Harper was told that he was free to leave “at any time” and they offered to give him a ride. During the interview, Harper consented to provide a DNA sample. The interview lasted one hour, and Harper left police headquarters.
Hunt’s cause of death was determined to “strangulation or some asphyxia related cause.” Additionally, saliva found on Hunt’s chest was later determined to contain Harper’s DNA. On July 30, 2012, a warrant was obtained Harper’s arrest.
On September 28, 2012, Harper was arrested and taken to police headquarters. In the interview, Harper made several contradictory statements and some admissions.
Harper filed a motion to suppress his statements from the March 6 interview and the September 28 interview.
The trial court denied the motion and Harper later appealed the denial of his motion. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia heard the case.
Harper first argued, on appeal, that his March 6, 2011 interview should be suppressed because he was in custody and was not provided his Miranda warnings nor did he waive his rights under Miranda.
The court first examined the law relevant to this issue. The court stated
A person is considered to be in custody and Miranda warnings are required when a person is (1) formally arrested or (2) restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest. Unless a reasonable person in the suspect’s situation would perceive that he was in custody, Miranda warnings are not necessary. Sewell v. State, 283 Ga. 558, 560-561 (662 SE2d 537) (2008) (citations and punctuation omitted).[ii]
The Court then examined the facts relevant to this issue. The court stated that Harper (1) voluntarily went with the detective and officer to police headquarters, (2) was not handcuffed or threatened, (3) was told he was he was free to leave at any time and offered a ride, (4) was allowed to leave after the interview, and (5) the interview only lasted one hour.
As such, the Court held that, based on the totality of the circumstances,
[Harper] was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. See California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1121-1122 (103 SCt 3517, 77 LE2d 1275) (1983) (holding that Miranda warnings were not required where suspect was not placed under arrest, voluntarily accompanied police to station house, and was allowed to leave unhindered after brief interview).[iii]
Second, Harper argued on appeal that his September 28, 2012 interview after his arrest should be suppressed because the arrest warrant was invalid.
Harper pointed to the fact that the warrant was issued “eleven minutes before the police applied for it,” the warrant did not list the victim’s name as required by Georgia law, and the police did not provide the magistrate a showing of probable cause.
The Court first examined the law relevant to this issue and stated
[T]he Fourth Amendment does not require the suppression of statements made outside the home after a warrantless arrest as long as the police had probable cause to make the arrest. See New York v. Harris, 495 U.S. 14, 17 (110 SCt 1640, 109 LE2d 13) (1990) (holding that Fourth Amendment does not “grant criminal suspects … protection for statements made outside their premises where the police have probable cause to arrest the suspect for committing a crime”); White v. State, 307 Ga. 601, 603 (837 SE2d 838) (2020) (holding that Fourth Amendment did not require suppression of defendant’s interview at police station shortly after his warrantless arrest at home because police had probable cause to arrest him). See also Roberts v. State, 252 Ga. 227, 228 (314 SE2d 83) (1984) (stating that where arrest was supported by probable cause, “even if the arrest warrant was invalid, the arrest was nonetheless legal”).[iv]
Thus, if the police had probable cause to arrest Harper, the arrest, and his subsequent statement would be legal, even if the arrest warrant was invalid.
The Court then set out to determine if there was probable cause to arrest Harper. At the time of Harper’s arrest, the police knew the following: (1) that Hunt had been killed by strangulation or asphyxiation; (2) her naked body was found wrapped in trash bags in the woods; (3) she had been living with Harper for months prior to her death; (4) she wanted to leave but was scared for her life because Harper had threatened her; (5) Harper lied to the police about his relationship with Hunt and the last time he saw her; and (6) saliva that contained Harper’s DNA was found on Hunt’s chest.
The Court then concluded that the above “facts and circumstances were sufficient to warrant a prudent person to believe that Appellant had murdered Hunt and therefore to support a finding of probable cause.”[v]
As such, the court held that
Therefore, the Court affirmed the denial of motion to suppress with respect to both the March 6, 2011 statement and the September 28, 2012 statement.
[i] S20A1288 (Ga. January 11, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 10
[vi] Id. at 10-11