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Oregon v. Elstad


    Citation. Oregon v. Elstad, 1984 U.S. LEXIS 1317, 465 U.S. 1078, 104 S. Ct. 1437, 79 L. Ed. 2d 759, 52 U.S.L.W. 3650 (U.S. Mar. 5, 1984)

    Brief Fact Summary. An individual was convicted of burglary. A signed confession was used to convict him. He was questioned without the benefit of Miranda warnings.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[A] suspect who has once responded to unwarned yet uncoercive questioning is not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he has been given the requisite Miranda warnings.”


    Facts. The Respondent, Michael James Elstad (the “Respondent”), was arrested for burglary after a witness contacted the police. After obtaining the witness’ tip, two officers went to the Respondent’s home with a warrant for his arrest. The Respondent’s mother answered the door and led the officers to her son’s bedroom. The officers asked the Respondent to get dressed and accompany them to the living room. After one of the officers took the Respondent’s mother into another room, the other officer, without giving the Respondent his Miranda warnings, got him to say he was present during the robbery.
    The Respondent was put into a police car and transported to the police station where one of the officers finally advised him of his Miranda rights. The Respondent said he understood his rights and agreed to speak to the officers. Thereafter, he recounted to the officers how he participated in the burglary. The statement was then put in writing. The writing included a statement that another individual gave the Respondent a small bag of grass.
    Before trial, the Respondent moved to suppress his oral statement and signed confession. The Respondent argued “the statement he made in response to questioning at his house ‘let the cat out of the bag’, and tainted the subsequent confession as ‘fruit of the poisonous tree.’ “The judge ruled that the statement, ‘I was there,’ had to be excluded because the defendant had not been advised of his Miranda rights. The written confession taken after Elstad’s arrival at the Sheriff’s office, however, was admitted in evidence. The court found: “his written statement was given freely, voluntarily and knowingly by the defendant after he had waived his right to remain silent and have counsel present which waiver was evidenced by the card which the defendant had signed. [It] was not tainted in any way by the previous brief statement between the defendant and the Sheriff’s Deputies that had arrested him.” The Respondent was found guilty.
    The Oregon Court of Appeals “reversed respondent’s conviction, identifying the crucial constitutional inquiry as ‘whether there was a sufficient break in the stream of events between [the] inadmissible statement and the written confession to insulate the latter statement from the effect of what went before.’ The court held “[r]egardless of the absence of actual compulsion, the coercive impact of the unconstitutionally obtained statement remains, because in a defendant’s mind it has sealed his fate. It is this impact that must be dissipated in order to make a subsequent confession admissible. In determining whether it has been dissipated, lapse of time, and change of place from the original surroundings are the most important considerations.” Further, “[b]ecause of the brief period separating the two incidents, the ‘cat was sufficiently out of the bag to exert a coercive impact on [respondent’s] later admissions.’ ”
    The Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

    Issue. “[W]hether an initial failure of law enforcement officers to administer the warnings required by [Miranda v. Arizona], without more, ‘taints’ subsequent admissions made after a suspect has been fully advised of and has waived his Miranda rights[?]”

    Held. The majority first observed “[t]he Oregon court assumed and respondent here contends that a failure to administer Miranda warnings necessarily breeds the same consequences as police infringement of a constitutional right, so that evidence uncovered following an unwarned statement must be suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” [The majority] believes this view misconstrues the nature of the protections afforded by Miranda warnings and therefore misreads the consequences of police failure to supply them.”
    The majority observed, “a procedural Miranda violation differs in significant respects from violations of the Fourth Amendment, which have traditionally mandated a broad application of the ‘fruits’ doctrine. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule is to deter unreasonable searches, no matter how probative their fruit. ‘The exclusionary rule, . . . when utilized to effectuate the Fourth Amendment, serves interests and policies that are distinct from those it serves under the Fifth.’ Where a Fourth Amendment violation ‘taints’ the confession, a finding of voluntariness for the purposes of the Fifth Amendment is merely a threshold requirement in determining whether the confession may be admitted in evidence. Beyond this, the prosecution must show a sufficient break in events to undermine the inference that the confession was caused by the Fourth Amendment violation.”
    “The Miranda exclusionary rule, however, serves the Fifth Amendment and sweeps more broadly than the Fifth Amendment itself. It may be triggered even in the absence of a Fifth Amendment violation. The Fifth Amendment prohibits use by the prosecution in its case in chief only of compelled testimony. Failure to administer Miranda warnings creates a presumption of compulsion. Consequently, unwarned statements that are otherwise voluntary within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment must nevertheless be excluded from evidence under Miranda. Thus, in the individual case, Miranda’s preventive medicine provides a remedy even to the defendant who has suffered no identifiable constitutional harm.”
    “But the Miranda presumption, though irrebuttable for purposes of the prosecution’s case in chief, does not require that the statements and their fruits be discarded as inherently tainted. Despite the fact that patently voluntary statements taken in violation of Miranda must be excluded from the prosecution’s case, the presumption of coercion does not bar their use for impeachment purposes on cross-examination.”
    “As in Tucker, the absence of any coercion or improper tactics undercuts the twin rationales – trust worthiness and deterrence – for a broader rule. Once warned, the suspect is free to exercise his own volition in deciding whether or not to make a statement to the authorities. The Court has often noted: ” ‘a living witness is not to be mechanically equated with the proffer of inanimate evidentiary objects illegally seized. . . . [T]he living witness is an individual human personality whose attributes of will, perception, memory and volition interact to determine what testimony he will give.'”
    “There is a vast difference between the direct consequences flowing from coercion of a confession by physical violence or other deliberate means calculated to break the suspect’s will and the uncertain consequences of disclosure of a ‘guilty secret’ freely given in response to an unwarned but noncoercive question, as in this case. Justice Brennan’s contention that it is impossible to perceive any causal distinction between this case and one involving a confession that is coerced by torture is wholly unpersuasive. Certainly, in respondent’s case, the causal connection between any psychological disadvantage created by his admission and his ultimate decision to cooperate is speculative and attenuated at best. It is difficult to tell with certainly what motivates a suspect to speak.”
    “A suspect’s confession may be traced to factors as disparate as ‘a prearrest event such as a visit with a minister,’ or an intervening event such as the exchange of words respondent had with his father. [The majority] conclude[d] that, absent deliberately coercive or improper tactics in obtaining the initial statement, the mere fact that a suspect has made an unwarned admission does not warrant a presumption of compulsion. A subsequent administration of Miranda warnings to a suspect who has given a voluntary but unwarned statement ordinarily should suffice to remove the conditions that precluded admission of the earlier statement. In such circumstances, the finder of fact may reasonably conclude that the suspect made a rational and intelligent choice whether to waive or invoke his rights.”
    The majority next observed “[t]hough belated, the reading of respondent’s rights was undeniably complete.” Also, “[t]here is no question that respondent knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent before he described his participation in the burglary. It is also beyond dispute that respondent’s earlier remark was voluntary, within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment.” “The State has conceded the issue of custody and thus [the Court] must assume that [the officer] breached Miranda procedures in failing to administer Miranda warnings before initiating the discussion in the living room.” Nonetheless, “[w]hatever the reason for [the officer’s] oversight, the incident had none of the earmarks of coercion. Nor did the officers exploit the unwarned admission to pressure respondent into waiving his right to remain silent.”
    “When police ask questions of a suspect in custody without administering the required warnings, Miranda dictates that the answers received be presumed compelled and that they be excluded from evidence at trial in the State’s case in chief. The Court has carefully adhered to this principle, permitting a narrow exception only where pressing public safety concerns demanded.”
    “Far from establishing a rigid rule, we direct courts to avoid one; there is no warrant for presuming coercive effect where the suspect’s initial inculpatory statement, though technically in violation of Miranda, was voluntary. The relevant inquiry is whether, in fact, the second statement was also voluntarily made. As in any such inquiry, the finder of fact must examine the surrounding circumstances and the entire course of police conduct with respect to the suspect in evaluating the voluntariness of his statements. The fact that a suspect chooses to speak after being informed of his rights is, of course, highly probative. [The majority found] that the dictates of Miranda and the goals of the Fifth Amendment proscription against use of compelled testimony are fully satisfied in the circumstances of this case by barring use of the unwarned statement in the case in chief. No further purpose is served by imputing ‘taint’ to subsequent statements obtained pursuant to a voluntary and
    knowing waiver. [The Court therefore held] that a suspect who has once responded to unwarned yet uncoercive questioning is not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he has been given the requisite Miranda warnings.”

    Discussion. This is an interesting case, showing that although Miranda warnings are necessary, they are not the be all and end all if an individual continues to speak and is not coerced to do so.


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