Divided justices reverse suppression order in custodial interrogation dispute

A split Indiana Supreme Court has reversed the suppression of a man’s statements made during a police interrogation, finding that the limited curtailment of his freedom of movement wasn’t akin to formal arrest. But one justice dissented, arguing that the suspect’s language barrier could have kept him from knowing he was free to leave.

The state of Indiana had sought transfer in the case of State of Indiana v. Axel Domingo Diego, 21S-CR-285 after the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the suppression of statements made by defendant Axel Domingo Diego while being questioned by police.

Domingo Diego was charged with two Class A felony counts of child molesting and one count of Class C felony child molesting. He filed a motion to suppress his statement to police, but the Cass Circuit Court found the statements were inadmissible because they were made pre-Miranda.

The COA affirmed the trial court in August 2020, then reaffirmed on rehearing in November.

In answering the question of whether Domingo Diego was “in custody” such that the detective should have read him Miranda warnings prior to the interview, the high court majority concluded that the totality of objective circumstances surrounding the interrogation would make a reasonable person feel free to end the questioning and leave. As such, it found that Domingo Diego’s freedom of movement was not curtailed to the degree associated with formal arrest.

“Focusing only on the freedom-of-movement inquiry, we think there is considerable daylight between (State v. E.R., 123 N.E.3d 675 (Ind. 2019)) and the present case that directly undercuts Domingo Diego’s claim of custodial interrogation,” Justice Steven David wrote for the majority.

“The interview took place in Detective (Troy) Munson’s personal office, not an interview room. The approximately forty-five minute interview — while certainly lengthy — was not particularly hostile; it was exploratory and conversational rather than accusatory. Domingo Diego and (girlfriend Andrea) Martin left the station unaided, which gives rise to a reasonable inference that Domingo Diego was not cabined into a remote place in the police station. Although blunt, the interview would not have revealed to a reasonable officer that Domingo Diego did not understand what was being said.

“True, the couple was told they ‘needed’ to come to the police station, Detective Munson did carry his gun, Domingo Diego was outnumbered in the interview room, and the couple had to move through several barriers. But given the casual atmosphere, exploratory and conversational line of questioning, and relatively unimpeded pathway to the room, the totality of these objective circumstances does not represent a curtailment akin to formal arrest,” the majority concluded.

It therefore reversed the trial court’s suppression order and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

But Justice Christopher Goff dissented with a separate 12-page opinion, arguing that a Miranda warning would be necessary when “a limited-English-speaking suspect, having been summoned to a police station by a fully uniformed officer, endures a prolonged and accusatory interrogation by an armed detective in a visually cabined office with no clear path to the office door and with no knowledge of his ability to freely exit the secured stationhouse entrance … .”

“Today, we consider the same question of custody in a case involving the same detective at the same police station conducting an interrogation under strikingly similar circumstances,” Goff wrote, pointing out the similarities with State v. E.R. “The Court, however, finds ‘considerable daylight between E.R. and the present case,’ ultimately concluding that the circumstances here amount to something less than custodial interrogation.”

Goff said one important factor distinguished the case at hand from E.R., bolstering the trial court’s conclusion that police conducted a custodial interrogation: Diego’s limited-English proficiency.

“… (U)pon electing to interrogate such a suspect, a prudent officer, in my opinion, should consider whether the suspect’s language barrier might reasonably bear on the suspect’s understanding of his freedom of action,” Goff wrote, citing United States v. Burden, 934 F.3d 675 (D.C. Cir. 2019). “If so, a Miranda warning would greatly assist a judge tasked with ruling on the admissibility of any statements made during the interview.”

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