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Quarles v. Commonwealth: Coerced Confessions in Virginia

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Procedure, Opinions/Cases

In Quarles v. Commonwealth, a recently issued opinion by the Virginia Court of Appeals, the court considered a set of facts similar to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Rhode Island v. Innis.  However, finding a number of ways to distinguish this case from Innis, it concluded that the defendant’s confession should have been suppressed as the product of police coercion.

In Rhode Island v. Innis, a case we all know from law school, two police officers were transporting a murder suspect to the police station. The crime had occurred near a school for handicapped children and the firearm supposedly used in the commission of the offense had not yet been recovered. During a conversation between the two officers, one of the officers expressed concern to the other officer about the location of the firearm:  “God forbid one of [the children] might find the weapon with shells and they might hurt themselves.”  Upon hearing this statement, the suspect became overcome with concern for the safety of the handicapped children and offered to take them to the firearm, thereby effectively signing a confession.

Because the conversation was “at least in form, nothing more than a dialogue between the two officers to which no response from [Innis] was invited,” the Supreme Court concluded that the statement by the officer did not amount to express questioning.  It would be error, the Court held, to equate such “subtle compulsion” with interrogation such that it would implicate the protections of the 5th Amendment.

The Virginia Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion under similar facts in Quarles v. Commonwealth, a opinion that was issued on March 29, 2011.  In this case, the defendant had signed a waiver of rights form but then informed one of the officers that he wanted to speak with an attorney.  The officer thus ceased all questioning in accordance with Edwards v. Arizona.

In the meantime, a detective was extracting a confession from Quarles’ co-defendant who admitted to the robbery and who also implicated Quarles.  The Detective then joined Quarles and the police officer, where he was handed a copy of Quarles’ signed waiver form and informed that Quarles had invoked his right to counsel.  “[T]hat’s fine if he doesn’t want to talk to me,” he said.  “I wasn’t the person that robbed a white lady and hit her in the head with a brick.”  Turning to Quarles to address him directly, he then said:  “If that’s the story you want to tell the judge, that’s fine.”

Quarles then spilled his guts.

Addressing the question as to whether the detective “engaged in an impermissible interrogation of Quarles after Quarles invoked his constitutional rights,” the court distinguished this case from Innis in two ways.  First, it pointed out that, unlike the police officer in Innis, the detective in this case directed at least the latter part of his remarks directly at the suspect:  “In this way, [the detective’s] comment was not part of a simple ‘dialogue between the two officers’ like the exchange between the officers in Innis.”

Second, the court based its holding on the fact that, unlike Innis, the detective “effectively informed Quarles of the evidence against him,” in effect challenging him to respond in some way.  The detective’s words “amounted to a specific warning to Quarles that co-defendant had implicated Quarles in the robbery and the conspiracy to rob the victim . . . The detective’s statement was tantamount to a veiled threat signaling to Quarles that unless he made a statement to officers, the judge would look unfavorably upon Quarles, based on co-defendant’s confession.”

This, the court held, rose above the mere “subtle compulsion” contemplated by the Supreme Court in Innis:  “When we consider [the detective’s] statements from Quarles’ perspective, we conclude that [the detective] should have known that his pointed criticism of Quarles’ defense was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.” And since the detective reinstated communication with Quarles after Quarles’ assertion of his right to the assistance of counsel, Quarles’ subsequent waiver of his Miranda rights was not voluntary.  His confession should thus have been suppressed.

H/T to Jon Katz for alerting me to this opinion.