Criminal Law Blog

Police Interrogation Tactics Threatening Prison Rape And Requiring A Confession Before Granting Access To An Attorney Render Confession Involuntary

 Jalonte Little v. United States (decided November 12, 2015).
Players:  Associate Judges Blackburne-Rigsby and Beckwith, Senior Judge Belson.  Opinion by Judge Beckwith.  Debra Soltis and Paul Kiyonaga for Mr. Little.  Trial Judge: Ronna L. Beck.
Facts: Police arrested eighteen-year-old Jalonta Little in connection with an attempted carjacking and brought him to the stationhouse for questioning.  Detective Joe Crespo read Mr. Little his rights, which Mr. Little voluntarily waived.  For the next two hours, Det. Crespo used a number of coercive interrogation tactics in an attempt to elicit a confession from Mr. Little.  He falsely told Mr. Little that several witnesses identified him as the perpetrator, falsely told Mr. Little that police recovered his fingerprints from the vehicle, and offered illusory promises of leniency if the eighteen-year-old confessed to the crime.  Mr. Little steadfastly denied involvement.  Det. Crespo upped the pressure, informing Mr. Little that he risked sexual assault should he go to prison, that he would be incarcerated in a faraway prison while his girlfriend forgot about him and moved on to someone new, and that his son would never visit him.  Still, Mr. Little did not confess.  Det. Crespo had one last trick up his sleeve.  He told Mr. Little that he would arrange a meeting with his at-this-point hypothetical attorney before seeking an arrest warrant, to which Mr. Little asked, “So where my attorney at?”  Crespo responded that Mr. Little would not see an attorney until after arraignment, and before he could set up the meeting Mr. Little had to tell him what happened—he had “to have some meat to put on the table.”  Mr. Little confessed two minutes later.
Issue: Was Mr. Little’s confession voluntary?
Holding:  Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the Court determined it was not.  Two aspects of the interrogation stood out as “most coercive.”  First, the Court found Det. Crespo’s comments urging Mr. Little to confess in order to avoid sexual assault in prison “offensive to a civilized system of justice.”  The comments were similar to those that rendered a confession involuntary in Arizona v. Fulminate, 499 U.S. 279, 287 (1991) (where police told Mr. Fulminate they would protect him from fellow inmates only if he confessed).  Second, the Court found that Det. Crespo’s comments to Mr. Little that he would not have access to an attorney until after arraignment and that he had to “put some meat on the table,” i.e. confess, before an attorney would be provided were “unquestionably coercive.”  At that point, “any assumption of continued voluntariness that stemmed from Mr. Little’s signing of the Miranda rights form faded.”  These two tactics, coupled with the other coercive tactics employed by the police, such as lying to Mr. Little about the evidence against him and threatening prosecution for crimes they openly thought he did not commit, proved Mr. Little’s confession involuntary. 
Of Note

  • In footnote 9, the Court notes that it need not decide whether Mr. Little’s question, “So where my attorney at?” was an invocation of his right to counsel.  The Court did note, however, that this statement “conveyed essentially the same message as the statement the Supreme Court assumed was an invocation of rights in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 479 (1981).” 

  • In footnote 16, the Court held that while the harmless error rule applies to erroneously admitted confessions, “a confession is like no other evidence” and “the risk that the coerced confession is unreliable, coupled with the profound impact that the confession has on the jury, requires a reviewing court to exercise extreme caution before determining that the admission of the confession at trial was harmless.”  Thus, the government “sensibly” did not argue that the admission of the involuntary confession was harmless.  DH