Divided Supreme Court upholds suppression of child molesting statements

An accused child molester who was not convicted due to a mistrial has won his argument that incriminating statements he made during a police interrogation were rightfully suppressed during trial because he was not read his Miranda warnings.

A majority of the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the suppression Monday in State of Indiana v. Ernesto Ruiz, 19S-CR-336.

The Ruiz case began when two Seymour Police officers interrogated Ernesto Ruiz “(i)n a small, windowless room in a secured area of the Seymour Police Department.” Ruiz was facing a Level 4 felony child molesting charge, but neither officer read him his Miranda warnings before beginning the interrogation.

At Ruiz’s ensuing trial, he moved to suppress video evidence of the interrogation, and after hearing evidence on the matter, the Jackson Circuit Court determined Ruiz was in custody during the interrogation and, thus, granted the motion. The court then declared a mistrial because a jury had been empaneled and the state said it could not proceed without the suppressed statements.

The Indiana Court of Appeals in a memorandum decision reversed the suppression last July, but in a split decision, the Indiana Supreme Court on granted transfer and reinstated the suppression. Chief Justice Loretta Rush — writing for a majority including justices Steven David and Christopher Goff concurring and Justice Mark Massa concurring in result — said there was “substantial, probative evidence of circumstances that, taken altogether, met both criteria of Miranda custody.”

First, under the totality of the circumstances, Rush said a reasonable person in Ruiz’s shoes would not have felt free to leave the interrogation. While there was evidence that supported the state’s argument that Ruiz was not in custody, the majority pointed to evidence “in the opposite direction” that would support the trial court’s suppression.

Specifically, Rush noted a police officer showed up at Ruiz’s home, informed him of the allegations and asked him to come to the police station without offering an alternate time or place for questioning. Further, though Ruiz was told once he was free to leave, he was told multiple times to “sit tight.” Finally, Rush said the second officer who entered the interrogation room was aggressive, changing the nature of the questioning.

“The officers were explicit that they believed Ruiz had engaged in the accused conduct,” the chief justice wrote. “And their questions were accusatory — not exploratory, like ones to identify suspects in the early stages of an investigation.”

The interrogation also included coercive pressures that qualified for Miranda custody, the majority said, noting Ruiz’s questioning was prolonged and isolated.

“First, after the interrogation began, the officers kept Ruiz ‘off balance’ in the already unfamiliar environment,” Rush wrote, pointing to the introduction of a second, more aggressive officer after questioning had begun. “… Detective (Troy) Munson then used subterfuge, lying to Ruiz about the accuser having taken a lie-detector test.”

“… Other pressures piled on,” Rush continued. “The officers said that they ‘knew’ the allegations were true; they engaged in prolonged, persistent, and accusatory questioning that focused on encouraging Ruiz to admit to the officer’s description of the wrongdoing; and they instructed Ruiz to stay put in the interrogation room while the time to pick up his daughter passed.” 

Thus, under the totality of the circumstances, the majority determined Ruiz was in Miranda custody, so his statements were properly suppressed.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented without a separate opinion, believing transfer should be denied.

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