Confessions – Civilian as a State Agent

Cases:   State v. Henry Floyd Sanders and State v. Fred Chad Clark, II

Facts:  In State v. Sanders the police asked a family member to wear a body wire while questioning the defendant about child sexual abuse.  The defendant argued that the trial court should have suppressed the statements he made to the family member because she was working as an agent of the State, and his statements were the product of the family member’s coercion.  The Court of Criminal Appeals held that “The totality of the circumstances reveals that appellant was not coerced by Ms. Standberry into making a statement or confession. This court relies on the following factors in so determining: (1) appellant was not in custody; (2) Ms. Standberry maintained a stern, yet non-argumentative tone; (3) the conversation occurred outdoors, i.e., appellant could not have reasonably felt confined or not free to leave at any time; and (4) the conversation occurred within a few feet of appellant’s vehicle, to which he held the keys, allowing him to leave at any time. While Ms. Standberry admittedly lied to appellant with regard to ceasing the investigation against him, she was not acting under instructions from law enforcement to do so. Her actions were the product of her legitimate motivation to seek the truth about the allegations of sexual abuse involving her daughter. Ms. Standberry’s tactics did not overbear appellant’s will, and we find his statements to be voluntarily given. Moreover, any error was harmless in light of the relatively non-incriminatory nature of appellant’s statements. He admitted to inadvertent touches only and did not incriminate himself with regard to any intentional acts of sexual abuse. Appellant did not testify at trial, thus, there were no inconsistencies with which to impeach him. Appellant is not entitled to relief on this issue.”

State v. Clark presented virtually identical facts. “The trial court found that Ms. Clark was a state actor because she and the police were complicit in obtaining the Defendant’s admissions. The court found, however, that the Defendant’s free will was not overborne by Ms. Clark’s actions. The court also determined that although Ms. Clark made misrepresentations about their future together and implied that she would not seek prosecution, she had no authority to forego prosecution or allow leniency. The court found, as well, that she did not misrepresent the evidence and did not threaten the Defendant because her statements that she would go to the police and obtain a medical examination of the victims unless the Defendant told the truth were statements of fact. The court noted that although the Defendant erroneously placed his trust in Ms. Clark, the evidence did not support a conclusion that the Defendant’s decision to confess was prompted by his misplaced trust, rather than by “the realities of the situation.” The court noted, as well, that the Defendant told Ms. Clark to “go ahead” with her plans to have the victims examined and to call the police because he had done nothing wrong. The court also noted the Defendant’s offer to undergo a polygraph examination. The court found it significant that the Defendant’s first affirmative, unqualified admission occurred in the second statement without prompting from Ms. Clark, after he had time to reflect following the first conversation.”  Under these facts the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted review in both cases, but did not consolidate them.

Issue:  Can a defendant’s statement to someone who is secretly assisting the State implicate the “police-dominated atmosphere” and coercion which Miranda proscribes, or are the statements simply involuntary?

Review Granted:  February 13, 2013

Prediction:  In State v. Branham, 855 S.W.2d 563 (Tenn. 1993), the Court considered the admissibility of a defendant’s surreptitiously recorded confession to a family member who visited the defendant in jail.  The court said that the question of coercion must be considered from a defendant’s perspective. However, in State v. Smith, 933 S.W.3d 450, 455 (Tenn. 1996) the Court found that the defendant’s subjective perception alone is not sufficient to justify the conclusion that confession was not voluntary and that coercive police activity must also be shown.  In David’s view the Court has granted review in these similar cases to address the tension between its two prior opinions on this subject. A person’s federal and state constitutional rights to be free from compelled self-incrimination are not violated simply because a person acting at the State’s behest elicits incriminating information from a Defendant.  However, coercion of a suspect is distinguished from strategic deception and the statement can be involuntary. David thinks the Court will fine tune the scope of the test and see if the statements were the product of coercion. David thinks the statement in Clark was involuntary and will be excluded but the statement in Sanders was admissible.

ABOUT David Raybin
David Raybin

David Raybin is a partner at Raybin & Weissman and he heads up the criminal defense section of the firm. With more than 35 years of experience, David has been named the Best Criminal Lawyer in Nashville by Best Lawyers in America, and listed among the Best Criminal Lawyers in the state by Tennessee Business magazine.

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