Monday, March 20, 2006

AD4: defendant denied fair trial where parole status put before jury and trial court refused to suppress pre-Miranda statements made during transport

People v Ramos, __ AD3d __ [4th Dept 2006] [available here]

In a rare substantive reversal based (at least in part) on an exercise of its "interest of justice" jurisdiction, the Fourth Department held in People v Ramos that a defendant was denied a fair trial "because Supreme Court allowed the People to elicit testimony indicating that defendant was on parole at the time of his arrest and because the court failed to suppress prearrest statements that he made while being transported in a police vehicle." (People v Ramos, __ AD3d at __.) The trial court's first error--allowing the prosecutor to put defendant's parole status before the jury--illustrates the useful point that a door is rarely open as widely as a trial court perceives it to be. In Ramos, the defendant's parole officer was also his arresting officer, and thus testified at trial. The defendant's mother testified in a manner that contradicted certain parts of the parole/arresting officer's testimony, and the trial court "ruled, sua sponte, that the testimony of defendant's mother opened the door to the introduction of testimony concerning defendant's status as a parolee." (Id. at __.) Exercising typical restraint, "the prosecutor referred on at least 10 occasions to the status of defendant as a parolee and the fact that the arresting officer was his parole officer." (Id. at __.) The Fourth Department held that the mother's testimony "in no way misled the jury with respect to the prior criminal history or current status of defendant" and therefore the door was not opened and it was a mistake for the trial court to allow the defendant's status as a parolee before the jury. (Id. at __.)

The Court then went on to reach defendant's unpreserved suppression issue in the interest of justice, holding defendant was in custody for Miranda purposes when "handcuffed and seated in the back of the police vehicle" and that the officer engaged in "interrogation" when he "confronted defendant with the fact that a gun had been found in a plastic bag in [defendant's] bedroom [...]." (Id. at __.) Since the custodial interrogation was not preceded by Miranda warnings, suppression was required. A nice decision by the Court, all the more so because of the Court's willingness to reach clear error in the interest of justice.