Clarifying questions no longer required for ambiguous requests for counsel

Facts

In 2017, Camille Eiland, a counselor at Warren-Yazoo Behavioral Health began treating a young woman, Vickie (14 to 16 years old at time of incidents), for depression. Eiland testified at trial that Vickie’s mother brought her there for treatment. After a few months, Vickie’s mother told Eiland that she was concerned about Vickie’s relationship with Vickie’s pastor, Troy Piccaluga.

Vickie’s mother had seen some text messages between Vickie and Piccaluga that concerned her. At a session in late February 2018, Eiland tried to broach the topic with Vickie. Eiland testified that Vickie did not “seem to really understand problems” with the relationship. Vickie told Eiland that she and Piccaluga were alone together often, that they had gone swimming together, that they texted often, and that they told each other, “I love you.”

Eiland was concerned by what Vickie told her, and she tried to discuss her concerns with Vickie. At a session in late March, Eiland again asked Vickie about Piccaluga, and Vickie started crying. Eiland testified that Vickie sat and cried silently for “a very long time.” Eiland passed Vickie some paper and told her to write down anything she wanted to tell her.

The note Vickie wrote in her session with Eiland was admitted as an exhibit at trial. It said, “It doesn’t matter what I do or don’t say. I’m going to lose almost everything that makes me happy. Troy will probably hate me. I’ll lose my best friend and my riding lessons. We all die eventually, so what would it matter if I did now. I just want everything to end.” The note also discussed missing a friend and being “put in a straight jacket and stuck in a white marshmallow room.” Based on Vickie’s note, Eiland was concerned that Vickie might try to harm herself. Therefore, Eiland made preparations for Vickie to be admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

Vickie was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital, where she was treated for several days. Eiland continued to treat Vickie after she was discharged. Eiland testified that Vickie continued to maintain that she had a sexual relationship with Piccaluga. Later in their counseling, Vickie would disclose that she and Piccaluga had sex more than ten times, but she was unsure of the exact number.

Investigator Todd Dikes of the Warren County Sheriff’s Department was contacted regarding the possible sexual abuse of Vickie. While Vickie was in the hospital, Dikes discussed Vickie’s disclosures with Vickie’s mother and arranged for Vickie to be interviewed by the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Jackson. Dikes observed the CAC interview through a closed-circuit television. During the CAC interview, Vickie again disclosed that she and Piccaluga had a sexual relationship.

After Vickie was released from the hospital, Dikes arranged for a monitored phone call between Vickie and Piccaluga. A recording of the phone call was played at trial. In the conversation, Vickie told Piccaluga that her period was late, and she asked him what she should do about it. He told her that she should “chill out for now” and doubted that her period could be late. He said, “If you remember, we haven’t even-well, never mind.”

Piccaluga asked Vickie if she was still using Instagram and if it was “safe.” He asked her if she had been deleting their messages. He questioned whether she would “betray him,” whether she was “on [his] side,” and if he was “in danger.” He said he was in “panic mode.” He ended the phone call by telling Vickie that he loved her and missed her.

Dikes obtained search warrants for Piccaluga’s home and Eagle Lake Methodist Church. A box of condoms was found hidden on Piccaluga’s boat.

Piccaluga met with Dikes at the sheriff’s department for an interview. At the beginning of the interview, Dikes informed Piccaluga of his Miranda rights, which Piccaluga then waived. During the interview, Dikes told Piccaluga about the allegations made by Vickie, which Piccaluga denied. Piccaluga said that Vickie was a family friend and that he treated her like a daughter. He told Dikes that maybe she was making these accusations because of her mother, but he did not elaborate.

Piccaluga and Dikes discussed the phone call Piccaluga had with Vickie. At that time, Piccaluga did not know that the phone call had been recorded. He told Dikes that he and Vickie discussed that she had been in the hospital because of self-harm, and he did not mention that she had told him her period was late. After Lieutenant Randy Lewis joined the interview, he revealed to Piccaluga that his phone conversation with Vickie had been recorded. Lewis told him that they had statements from Vickie, the recorded phone call, and Instagram messages between him and Vickie.

Lewis had not actually obtained any Instagram messages between Piccaluga and Vickie. He testified that his office was not able to recover any such messages. He testified that they had seized Piccaluga’s iPhone, but they were unable to access it because they did not know Piccaluga’s passcode. Lewis testified that no child pornography had been found on any of Piccaluga’s other electronic devices.

Piccaluga was convicted of statutory rape and sexual battery and sentenced to 55 years. On appeal, he argued during the statement to police, he made a request to talk to someone else and this should have ended the interview. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

Piccaluga argues that the trial judge should have granted his motion to suppress part of his videotaped interrogation interview. He argues that after he told officers he wanted to “talk to someone else,” they should have ended the interview, and because they did not do so, all of the interview that follows should have been suppressed.

Piccaluga acknowledges that he knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights at the beginning of the interrogation. Piccaluga and Dikes discussed Vickie’s allegations and the recorded phone call between Piccaluga and Vickie. At that time, Piccaluga did not know that the phone call had been recorded.

He told Dikes that he and Vickie discussed that she had been in the hospital because of self-harm. He did not mention that she had told him her period was late. Dikes left the room and returned with Lewis, who subsequently told Piccaluga that the phone call had been recorded. After further questioning, Piccaluga asked Dikes and Lewis what they wanted him to say, and Lewis said they just wanted the truth.

Eventually, Piccaluga asked for some hypothetical scenarios about the way his situation could turn out. Dikes said that things generally turned out better for those who confessed and told the truth. Piccaluga said, “It’s not that I don’t wanna cooperate. I don’t wanna open my mouth and say things if I don’t know the whole story yet.” Dikes and Lewis said they would tell Piccaluga the truth if he told them the truth.

Lewis told Piccaluga that there was “no reason in the world” he should have known whether Vickie’s period was late. Piccaluga then said, “I wanna cooperate, but I want to be able to talk to someone else about where I am. I’ve never been in this position before in my life. I don’t know anybody that has.” Lewis responded, “Well that’s what [Dikes] told you. Once you don’t want to, or don’t want to answer a question, you don’t have to.” Lewis said it was just a conversation to confirm information he had already received.

Dikes left the room while Lewis and Piccaluga continued talking. Piccaluga asked how talking would help him, and Lewis said it would help for him and the district attorney to know Piccaluga’s side of the story. Piccaluga then said, “I think I would rather filter some of this,” and Lewis left to call the district attorney about charging Piccaluga.

Piccaluga argues that he invoked his right to remain silent and/or his right to counsel when he stated, “I wanna cooperate, but I want to be able to talk to someone else about where I am.” He further argues that Dikes and Lewis should have stopped the interview immediately and that the remainder of the interview should have been suppressed.

In Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a suspect must unambiguously request counsel in order to invoke his right to counsel under Miranda. They declined to adopt a rule requiring officers to ask clarifying questions. Instead, they held that officers have no obligation to stop questioning a suspect until the suspect makes an unambiguous or unequivocal request for counsel.

In Berghuis, the U.S. Supreme Court extended Davis’s holding to a suspect’s invocation of the Miranda right to remain silent.

In Moore, the MSC held that officers are permitted to ask questions to clarify an ambiguous invocation of the right to remain silent or to counsel.

But in Saddler, the MSC held that such clarifying questions are not required. Therefore, it is now clear, under both the Federal Constitution and the Mississippi Constitution, that officers have no obligation to stop questioning a suspect in the absence of an unambiguous or unequivocal request for an attorney or assertion of the right to remain silent.

Against this backdrop, the trial judge did not err by admitting relevant portions of the Piccaluga’s recorded interview. Piccaluga’s statement, “I wanna cooperate, but I want to be able to talk to someone else about where I am,” was not an unambiguous or unequivocal invocation of either his right to remain silent or his right to an attorney. Therefore, officers did not have to stop questioning him at that time.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/Images/Opinions/CO157717.pdf