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Breaking Legal Developments


Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Massachusetts Appellate Court Suppresses Minors Arson Confessions


In Commonwealth v. Leon L., No. 99-P-796, 99-P-797 (Oct. 15, 2001), the Massachusetts Appellate Court reviewed a finding by a trial court suppressing juveniles confessions related to an arson fire. In Worcester, an historic one hundred year old dining car, which had graced various public places over the years, suffered severe damage on October 20, 1998. Vandals set it ablaze at East Park late at night. Every effort was made to douse the fire, but the diner sustained severe damage. A police investigation ensued that focused on two juveniles, Leon and Carl, whose statements to the police are the subject of this appeal.

On October 20, 1998, Detectives Michael Sabatalo and Michael Mulvey of the Worcester police arson squad drove to fourteen year old Leon's home to question him. Once there, Sabatalo found that Leon's mother spoke no English. A neighbor was called to translate. Leon was not home. His mother left to bring him back from a nearby basketball court.

When Leon and his mother returned to the house, Mulvey observed that Leon spoke and understood only "broken English." The detectives made a decision to take the mother and son to the police station. They agreed, and Sabatalo drove them in an unmarked police van while Mulvey traveled in a separate vehicle. There was no one to interpret en route, but it does not appear that any conversation of consequence occurred. At the station, Leon and his mother waited in an interview room for the interpreter to arrive. While waiting for the interpreter, Sabatalo began speaking to Leon in a raised voice and banging his open hand on the table. Leon's mother did not understand what Sabatalo said, but his anger was so apparent that she broke down and cried.

The tension was broken when Officer Miguel Lopez, who was bilingual and had no part in the investigation of the fire, came to interpret for Leon and his mother. Lopez explained Leon's Miranda rights in English and Spanish. Both Leon's and his mother's signatures appear on the Miranda warnings form, his signature appearing below the English version and hers beneath the Spanish one.

After Lopez completed the Miranda warnings, Sabatalo and two other officers left the room so that Leon and his mother could speak with each other alone. When the officers returned, the questioning began, with Officer Lopez translating. Leon denied any involvement with the fire. Sabatalo told him that someone named Michael Brown had spoken to the police and had implicated Leon and thirteen year old Carl as the persons who set the fire. After speaking with his mother and with Officer Lopez, Leon, in response to Sabatalo's questions, broke down and admitted being a participant. His answers were transcribed, and it was this document that he sought to suppress.

Carl arrived at the police station after Leon. Miranda warnings, in Spanish and English, were read to him and his mother. Lopez again served as an interpreter. Both Carl and his mother signed a waiver card indicating their understanding of the warnings. At first, Carl denied any wrongdoing. Carl was crying, and his mother was nervous. His mother left the room briefly to use the ladies' room. When she returned, Carl was in the process of making a statement confessing his involvement in the fire. Carl's mother was having difficulty understanding the nature of the interrogation. She became distraught and uncertain as to what to do. In her testimony, she described Carl as "nervous" and "crying" throughout the time he made the statement.

The second question raised in this appeal is whether the ensuing answers to the questions put by Sabatalo were voluntary. That determination involves examining "the totality of the circumstances surrounding the making of the statements themselves in an effort to determine whether they were the product of a 'rational intellect' and a 'free will.'" Commonwealth v. Edwards, 420 Mass. 666, 673 (1995), quoting from Commonwealth v. Selby, 420 Mass. 656, 662 (1995). Due process requires a separate inquiry into the voluntariness of the statement, apart from the validity of the Miranda waiver. See ibid. The factors we take into consideration include "promises or other inducements, conduct of the [juvenile], the [juvenile's] age, education, intelligence and emotional stability, experience with and in the criminal justice system, physical and mental condition, the initiator of the discussion of a deal or leniency (whether the [juvenile] or the police), and the details of the interrogation, including the recitation of Miranda warnings." Commonwealth v. LeBlanc, 433 Mass. 549, 554 (2001), quoting from Commonwealth v. Mandile, 397 Mass. 410, 413 (1986). See Commonwealth v. Tavares, 385 Mass. 140, 152, cert. denied, 457 U.S. 1137 (1982).

The judge was within her discretion in finding that Leon and Carl, who had only been in the United States for a short time, were unable to withstand the pressure to confess. There was strong evidence that their admissions were the product of Sabatalo's inquisitorial style. The juveniles' emotional states and those of their mothers, as described in the judge's findings, indicate a loss of mental freedom of action. There is lacking proof beyond a reasonable doubt, see Commonwealth v. Allen, 395 Mass. 448, 456-457 (1985), of the juveniles' voluntary participation at the point Sabatalo pressured each of them to confess. Nor did the motion judge make any finding that the situation changed during any stage of the interrogation. The motion to suppress was upheld.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), (e-mail), Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

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