Statement induced by leniency not admissible


In 1996, several agents from the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics met with a confidential informant and conducted a preliminary meeting relating to a proposed drug buy from a suspected dealer, Bennie Harper. After searching the informant and his vehicle, the agents installed a transmitter in the vehicle and instructed the informant to place a telephone call to Harper’s pager from a local pay telephone.

The informant called Harper’s pager number, and shortly thereafter, he received a call back from Harper. Harper directed the informant to travel to the 35 Quick Stop near Forest, Mississippi. As the informant complied with Harper’s instructions, the agents followed him to the parking lot of the Quick Stop where they overheard a conversation between the informant and an unidentified individual over the transmitter.

The informant then contacted the agents and notified them that Harper was traveling in their direction. The agents, who were pulled over onto the shoulder of the roadway, observed the suspect as he drove down the road and then stopped on the side. The informant followed the suspect in his vehicle to the location on the roadside where Harper had parked. At that point, the informant got out of his vehicle and walked toward Harper’s vehicle.

At the trial, Agent Jimmie Nichols testified that the informant appeared to enter Harper’s vehicle and, after a few minutes, returned to his vehicle. Once inside his own vehicle, the informant notified the agents that Harper possessed the drugs, and they proceeded to arrest Harper. Although the record is not clear, it appears that the informant did not actually purchase any drugs from Harper. When the agents removed Harper from his vehicle, they noticed an open bag on the rear floorboard which contained what appeared to be several “bricks” of marijuana.

After the agents removed the evidence from the vehicle, they traveled to another location to elude the detection of other suspected drug dealers in the area. Harper subsequently gave a statement to the agents in which he admitted his involvement in the transaction.

Harper was convicted of possession of more than one kilogram of marijuana with intent to sell and sentenced to 20 years. On appeal, he argued the search of his car was illegal and his statement was involuntary. MCOA agreed with Harper as to his statement and reversed.


A. Automobile search

The MSC recently addressed a somewhat similar situation concerning the automobile exception to the warrant requirement in Jackson. In that case, a confidential informant notified law enforcement officers that three vehicles would be traveling in tandem through the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Interstate 10 and that the third vehicle would contain a package of drugs. Although the officers admitted that they had sufficient time to request a search warrant, an investigating officer testified that he stopped the vehicles, conducted a search, and located the drugs without obtaining a warrant.

MSC found that the officers had sufficient probable cause to stop the vehicles and to search the suspects based on the information they received from the informant coupled with their personal observations which corroborated the informant’s details. Moreover, the court recognized that the justification to conduct such a warrantless search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized quoting U.S. Supreme Court case Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259 (1982). (In other words, an automobile exception search can take place even once the car is impounded)

In our case, the agents had probable cause to stop and search Harper’s vehicle. Agent Jimmie Nichols testified that the confidential informant had purchased marijuana from Harper in an undercover operation a few weeks earlier in the same manner. Nichols described in detail the events leading up to the proposed drug transaction on the date in question. The officers followed the confidential informant and remained in contact with him through the radio transmitter placed in his vehicle.

After the informant met with Harper, he returned to his vehicle and notified the agents that Harper had the drugs in his possession. Nichols testified that they moved in, secured the informant, and removed Harper from his vehicle. Furthermore, Nichols stated that he observed a large bag in the rear floorboard of Harper’s vehicle “containing what appeared to be five or six large bricks of marijuana” through a window in the vehicle.

While Nichols acknowledged that the vehicle’s windows were tinted, he testified that it was “broad daylight,” and he was able to see inside of the vehicle without any problem or apparent obstruction. Consequently, we find that the trial court did not err in admitting into evidence the marijuana recovered from Harper’s vehicle.

Both the automobile and plain view exceptions permitted the agents to search the vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.

B. Statement

Harper contends that the confession was not voluntarily given because Agent Nichols induced him to give the statement with promises of leniency.

Nichols testified that he advised Harper of his Miranda rights and that Harper signed the standard form which advised him of his right to remain silent, to consult with an attorney, and also acknowledged that he waived all of his rights pursuant to Miranda. Nichols stated that Harper did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and that no threats, rewards, or promises of leniency were made to the Appellant.

On cross-examination however, Nichols acknowledged that prior to giving a statement, Harper asked what could he do to stay out of jail and further acknowledged that in response, he informed Harper that “he could help us with the source, and we wouldn’t have to arrest him on the spot, but he would sooner or later be arrested for the charges.” After Harper gave a statement to the agents, Nichols said that he told Harper that “whatever he did to help us in our investigation would be made known to the District Attorney’s office, and it would be up to them to make a recommendation to the Court.”

Agent Leonard Harrison corroborated Nichols’s testimony.

Harper stated that Nichols informed him that “he was going to make sure I got—try to get parole, I would get one year in the County Jail, get probation and one year in the County Jail.” Harper also testified that the agents instructed him to drive his vehicle to Morton, Mississippi. After he complied with their instructions, Harper asserted that the agents told him that they would get him a low bond set if he would give them a statement and help them. On rebuttal, Nichols denied that he told Harper he would only receive a one year sentence in the county jail.

A confession obtained as a result of promises, threats, or other inducements is not admissible at trial. The MSC has repeatedly condemned the practice whereby law enforcement interrogators, or related third parties, convey to suspects the impression, however slight, that cooperation by the suspect might be of some benefit.

In several cases, the MSC has addressed whether a statement was involuntarily induced from the defendant by an offer of bond or reduced bond.

In Blalock v. State, 79 Miss. 517 (1902), MSC held that a confession obtained after the arresting officer informed the defendant that he was his friend and “would go on his bond, if necessary,” was not admissible.

In Clash v. State, 146 Miss. 811 (1927), the defendant confessed in the presence of a store owner that he had stolen money from the store. During the trial, the store owner testified that he did not offer the defendant any reward or inducement to make the confession other than informing the defendant that “if he would tell us about the money, and return it, we would let him out of jail on bond. On appeal, the MSC held that the store owner’s statement to the defendant was such an offer of inducement or benefit as to render it involuntary and therefore inadmissible.

In Barnes v. State, 199 Miss. 86 (1945), the defendant confessed to the crime after a detective and the sheriff made statements to the effect that if the defendant would confess, his children would be released from jail. The sheriff also informed the defendant that “the law would be lighter on him if he would confess” and he would sign his bond, if the court would allow such a bond. The conviction was reversed.

On the other hand, in Layne v. State, 542 So.2d 237 (Miss. 1989), an officer testified that he advised the defendant that the best policy was to tell the truth. Another officer testified that he informed the defendant that the district attorney would be notified if he (the defendant) would cooperate with the investigation. MSC found (1) that the defendant had been informed of his rights; (2) that the officer’s promise to inform the district attorney was not accompanied by any further promise of benefit or other persuasive interviewing techniques; and (3) that because the defendant offered no evidence that the officers promise to tell the district attorney was a proximate cause of his confession, we affirm.

In this case, we find that Harper’s statement to the narcotics agents was not freely and voluntarily made but rather was induced by the agents’s promises of leniency. After the agents secured the evidence from the vehicle, they transported Harper “to another location to try to keep anybody else from seeing” them so that they could obtain the identity of the drug source.

The testimony reveals that when Harper gave his statement to the agents he was eager to stay out of jail. In fact, both agents acknowledged that Harper had asked them what he could do to stay out of jail. Although there is contradictory testimony concerning precisely when Nichols informed Harper that he would convey any cooperation by Harper to the district attorney’s office, it is undisputed that Nichols made other promises of leniency before Harper gave his statement or confession.

Nichols admitted that he advised Harper that if he would help them with the source, they would not “arrest him on the spot.” During examination by the trial court, Nichols testified that he informed Harper that if he cooperated at the time, they probably would not “lock him up that day.” Moreover, Harper testified that he gave the statement to the officers because they promised to help him if he would give a statement.

Based upon the record before us, we conclude that the statements and the impressions conveyed by the agents to Harper improperly induced him to confess.