Massachusetts criminal defense attorney comments on court decision involving voluntariness of statement, police agree is “off of the record”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Mark Tremblay addressed whether the defendant’s statement was voluntary when the police agrees that it would be off of the record. The issue before the court was not whether Miranda warning had been given, as the Massachusetts criminal lawyer conceded that the defendant was not in custody triggering the requirements of Miranda. Click here to read a copy of the SJC decision in Tremblay.

A criminal defense lawyer can typically challenge an incriminating statement on two separate but related grounds. First, whether an incriminating statement was obtained in violation of Miranda; or second, whether the police violated a defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination and infringed upon due process of law by coercing a statement from a defendant.

The SJC held that the test for whether a confession is voluntary is to view it in light of the totality of circumstances surrounding the making of the statement. The Court will consider whether the will of the defendant was overborne to the extent that the defendant’s statement was not the result of a free and voluntary act. The SJC stressed that relevant factors include, but are not limited to, promises or other inducements, conduct of the defendant, age, education, intelligence and emotional stability, experience with the criminal justice system, physical and mental condition. Further, the SJC will consider who initiates the discussion of a deal for leniency, whether the defendant or the police and the detail of the interrogation including the recitation of Miranda warnings.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Tremblay emphasized that police should use caution in using deception or trickery during an interrogation. The Court stressed that trickery does not compel suppress of the statements but is one factor for the court to consider. Further, the SJC noted that suggestions by the police that the defendant would benefit from the confession may raise issues of whether the confession is voluntary.

In viewing the Tremblay case, the Court said that the officer’s actions did not fall neatly into either category of trickery or making assurances that the defendant would benefit from confessing.

Key to the SJC determination that the officer did not use trickery was the fact that he agreed to the defendant suggestion that the comments would be off of the record and not included in the written portion of the statement, but never made any promises of protection or leniency. The SJC found no evidence of coercion of the officer as a result of his agreeing that statements be off of the record and held that the statements were properly admitted at trial.

In a dissenting opinion, two members of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Justice Gants and Ireland disagreed with the majority of the Court and would have suppressed the statements and wrote separately in a dissenting opinion discussing their reasoning.

Justice Gants wrote that in Commonwealth v. DiGiambattista, the SJC recognized that police trickery during an interrogation may cast doubt on the voluntariness of a suspect’s statement. The DiGiambattista decision held that a Massachusetts criminal lawyer may request an instruction that a jury can view a confession that was not recorded on video tape with caution if the police do not electronically preserve the interrogation.

Justice Gants outlined three forms of police trickery that may undermine the voluntariness of a confession: false promises of leniency in return for a suspects statement, false representation regarding the right to represent himself during trial, and false promises that the statement will not be used against a suspect. Justice Gants notes that the majority indicated that an assurance that a statement will be off of the record should be avoided, but failed to find the statement involuntary despite case law from other jurisdictions where suppression was deemed appropriate.

As a Massachusetts criminal attorney, I believe the court should have suppressed the statement as being involuntary as the officer did provide an assurance to the defendant that his statement would not be used against him. The case probably would have resulted in a different outcome if the defendant had not suggested that some of his comments be off of the record; the court found it critical that the officer only agreed to the defendant’s suggestion. Criminal defense lawyers in Massachusetts should use this decision to help develop facts during motion to suppress hearings showing the control of the officer over the interrogation as the court will place great emphasis on these details on appellate review.

To read more about this decision I would recommend Kyle Cheney’s article in the Patriot Ledger.

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