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State v. Hammonds

Supreme Court of North Carolina

September 29, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
TAE KWON HAMMONDS

          Issues raised in the supplemental briefs heard on 13 June 2017.

         On review pursuant to order of this Court entered on 10 June 2016 following oral argument on 18 May 2016 in session in the Old Burke County Courthouse in the City of Morganton pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-10(a), in which the Court vacated the opinion of the Court of Appeals in State v. Hammonds, ___ N.C.App. ___, 777 S.E.2d 359 (2015), vacated an order denying defendant's motion to suppress entered on 24 July 2014 by Judge Tanya T. Wallace in Superior Court, Union County, and certified the case to the trial court for a new hearing and entry of a new order on defendant's motion to suppress. State v. Hammonds, 368 N.C. 906, 789 S.E.2d 1 (2016). The Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs after certification of the new order to this Court.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Joseph E. Elder, Assistant Attorney General, for the State.

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Anne M. Gomez, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

          HUDSON, JUSTICE.

         Here we are asked to decide whether the trial court properly concluded that defendant was not subjected to a custodial interrogation as defined in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), when police questioned him while he was confined under a civil commitment order. After considering the totality of the circumstances, we conclude that defendant was in custody for Miranda purposes. Therefore, the failure of police to advise him of his rights under Miranda rendered inadmissible the incriminating statements he made during the interrogation. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order denying his motion to suppress those statements. Because this error was prejudicial, we vacate defendant's conviction.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On the evening of 10 December 2012 in Monroe, North Carolina, a man stole Stephanie Gaddy's purse in a parking lot while threatening her with a handgun. Shortly after 1:00 p.m. on 11 December 2012, Defendant Tae Kwon Hammonds was taken to the emergency room at a local hospital following an intentional overdose. An involuntary commitment order was issued at 3:50 p.m. upon a finding by a Union County magistrate that defendant was "mentally ill and dangerous to self or others." As directed in the order, the Union County Sheriff's Office took defendant into custody at 4:32 p.m. that same day.

         After using surveillance footage to identify defendant as a suspect in the robbery, investigators learned that he was confined at the hospital under the involuntary commitment order. In the early evening of 12 December, while defendant was hospitalized under that order, he was questioned by Detective Jonathan Williams and his supervisor, Lieutenant T.J. Goforth, both of the Monroe Police Department, for about an hour and a half. Without informing him of his Miranda rights, the officers elicited self-incriminating statements from defendant during the interview. Defendant was discharged from the hospital later that evening and transported to a treatment facility.

         On 4 February 2013, the Union County Grand Jury indicted defendant for robbery with a dangerous weapon. On 30 June 2014, defendant moved to suppress all statements he made to police during the 12 December 2012 interview. In support of his motion, defendant asserted that (1) he was in custody when the statements were taken and was not informed of his Miranda rights at that time, and (2) even if he was not in custody, his statements were not made voluntarily.

         Defendant was tried during the criminal session of Superior Court, Union County, that began on 30 June 2014 before Judge Tanya T. Wallace. After hearing defendant's motion to suppress, the trial court denied the motion on 1 July 2014. The court also denied defendant's motion to dismiss at the close of the State's evidence. A jury convicted defendant as charged, and the court sentenced him to sixty to eighty- four months of imprisonment. The court also ordered defendant to pay, inter alia, fifty dollars in restitution to the victim. On 24 July 2014, the court entered a written order on the motion to suppress in which it made findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         Defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals, which on 20 October 2015 issued a divided opinion that found no error in the guilt-innocence portion of defendant's trial but vacated the portion of the trial court's judgment ordering defendant to pay restitution to the victim and remanded the case for a new hearing on that issue. State v. Hammonds, ___ N.C.App. ___, ___, 777 S.E.2d 359, 371-72 (2015). Regarding defendant's challenge to the trial court's denial of his suppression motion, the majority (1) concluded that "the trial court properly considered all of the factors to determine if defendant was in custody and did not err in its conclusion of law that based on the totality of the circumstances, defendant was not in custody at the time he was interviewed, " and (2) held that "the trial court's findings of fact support its conclusion of law that defendant's confession was voluntary." Id. at ___, ___, 777 S.E.2d at 368, 371.

         The dissenting judge, however, concluded that the trial court's findings of fact did not reflect consideration of whether defendant "was physically restrained from leaving the place of interrogation" or whether he "was free to refuse to answer questions." Id. at ___, 777 S.E.2d at 374 (Inman, J., dissenting) (quoting State v. Fisher, 158 N.C.App. 133, 145, 580 S.E.2d 405, 415 (2003), aff'd per curiam, 358 N.C. 215, 593 S.E.2d 583 (2004)). The dissenting judge stated that she would reverse the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress and remand "for reconsideration of the motion and the entry of findings and conclusions based upon all pertinent factors." Id. at ___, 777 S.E.2d at 375. Defendant filed his appeal of right, and on 28 January 2016 this Court allowed defendant's petition for discretionary review to consider additional issues.

         On 9 June 2016, this Court vacated the opinion of the Court of Appeals and the trial court's orders denying defendant's motion to suppress, and we instructed the trial court to hold a new hearing on the motion to suppress. State v. Hammonds, 368 N.C. 906, 789 S.E.2d 1 (2016). We directed the trial court to "apply a totality of the circumstances test" when rehearing the motion and to consider all factors, including "whether the involuntarily committed defendant 'was told that he was free to end the questioning.' " Id. at 907-08, 789 S.E.2d at 2 (quoting Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499, 517, 132 S.Ct. 1181, 1194, 182 L.Ed.2d 17, 32 (2012)).

         After taking additional evidence at a new suppression hearing, the trial court entered an order on 27 September 2016 that again denied defendant's motion to suppress. As directed by this Court, the trial court made new findings of fact and conclusions of law in its order. The matter is now back before this Court for review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, in addition to challenging several of the trial court's findings of fact, defendant argues that the court's undisputed findings do not support its conclusions of law that (1) he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda during his 12 December 2012 interrogation, and (2) his statements to police during that interrogation were voluntary.

         The standard of review in evaluating a trial court's "denial of a motion to suppress is whether competent evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law." State v. Jackson, 368 N.C. 75, 78, 772 S.E.2d 847, 849 (2015) (quoting State v. Otto, 366 N.C. 134, 136, 726 S.E.2d 824, 827 (2012)). "[T]he trial court's findings of fact 'are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence, even if the evidence is conflicting.' " State v. Buchanan, 353 N.C. 332, 336, 543 S.E.2d 823, 826 (2001) (quoting State v. Brewington, 352 N.C. 489, 498, 532 S.E.2d 496, 501 (2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1165, 121 S.Ct. 1126, 148 L.Ed.2d 992 (2001)).

         Conclusions of law are fully reviewable on appeal. State v. Greene, 332 N.C. 565, 577, 422 S.E.2d 730, 737 (1992). "[T]he trial court's conclusions of law must be legally correct, reflecting a correct application of applicable legal principles to the facts found." Buchanan, 353 N.C. at 336, 543 S.E.2d at 826 (alteration in original) (quoting State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364, 409, 533 S.E.2d 168, 201 (2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 931, 121 S.Ct. 1379, 149 L.Ed.2d 305 (2001)). A trial court's determination of whether an interrogation is conducted while a person is "in custody" for purposes of Miranda is a conclusion of law and thus fully reviewable by this Court. Id. at 336, 543 S.E.2d at 826.

         For the reasons set forth below, we hold that the trial court's conclusion that defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda reflected an incorrect application of legal principles to the facts found by the trial court.[1]

         In Miranda the United States Supreme Court recognized the "inherently compelling pressures" exerted upon an individual during an in-custody interrogation by law enforcement officers. 384 U.S. at 467, 86 S.Ct. at 1624, 16 L.Ed.2d at 719. As a result, the Court prescribed procedural safeguards designed "to combat these pressures and to permit a full opportunity to exercise the [Fifth Amendment] privilege against self-incrimination." Id. at 467, 86 S.Ct. at 1624, 16 L.Ed.2d at 719. These safeguards require that a defendant "be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires." Id. at 479, 86 S.Ct. at 1630, 16 L.Ed.2d at 726.

         A Miranda warning is only required, however, when an individual is subjected to a "custodial interrogation." Barden, 356 N.C. at 337, 572 S.E.2d at 123 (citing, inter alia, Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444, 86 S.Ct. at 1612, 16 L.Ed.2d at 706). A "custodial interrogation" occurs when "questioning [is] initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444, 86 S.Ct. at 1612, 16 L.Ed.2d at 706. In determining whether an individual was subjected to a custodial interrogation, courts consider whether, "based on the totality of the circumstances, . . . there was a 'formal arrest or [a] restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest.' " Buchanan, 353 N.C. at 339, 543 S.E.2d at 828 (quoting State v. Gaines, 345 N.C. 647, 662, 483 S.E.2d 396, 405, cert. denied, 522 U.S. 900, 118 S.Ct. 248, 139 L.Ed.2d 177 (1997)).

Two discrete inquiries are essential to [this] determination: first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was [not] at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. Once the scene is set and the players' lines and actions are reconstructed, the court must apply an objective test to resolve the ultimate inquiry: was there a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 270, 131 S.Ct. 2394, 2402, 180 L.Ed.2d 310, 322 (2011) (quoting Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99, 112, 116 S.Ct. 457, 465, 133 L.Ed.2d 383, 394 (1995) (brackets, internal quotation marks, and citations omitted)). Custody for Miranda purposes "depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not on the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned." Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 323, 114 S.Ct. 1526, 1529, 128 L.Ed.2d 293, 298 (1994) (per curiam). That is, "the only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation." Id. at 324, 114 S.Ct. at 1529, 128 L.Ed.2d at 299 (quoting Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 3151, 82 L.Ed.2d 317, 336 (1984)).

         As the United States Supreme Court has recently clarified, however, "[n]ot all restraints on freedom of movement amount to custody for purposes of Miranda." Fields, 565 U.S. at 509, 132 S.Ct. at 1189, 182 L.Ed.2d at 28. Rather, "the freedom-of-movement test identifies only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for Miranda custody." Id. at 509, 132 S.Ct. at 1190, 182 L.Ed.2d at 28 (quoting Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98, 112, 130 S.Ct. 1213, 1224, 175 L.Ed.2d 1045, 1058 (2010)).[2] Therefore, when a suspect's freedom of movement is already restricted because of conditions unrelated to the interrogation-such as civil commitment, criminal confinement, or hospitalization-reviewing courts must consider "all of the features of the interrogation" to determine "whether the relevant ...


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