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Invoking Your Right To An Attorney

Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision in State v. Abayuba Rivas ruling that Rivas’ confession is thrown out due to the police failing to honor his request for counsel during interrogation.

Rivas contacted the police because he said his wife was missing. The police took several statements from Rivas before showing him video contradicting his statements. Rivas then changed his statement and was incarcerated for incriminating himself on another crime and providing false information to the police. While in jail, Rivas attempted suicide and was transferred to a hospital. While in the hospital, the police continued to question Rivas. The police read Rivas his Miranda rights and continued to question him. Rivas’ story again changed. The police came back the next day and began a 6 hour question and answer session. During this time, the detective had Rivas read his Miranda rights. While doing so, Rivas made various statements about needing to find a lawyer and determine how much one would cost, asking if he needed an attorney, and then later that he does want a lawyer. The police continued to question him. Rivas ended up confessing to killing his wife. 

The trial court determined that Rivas’ various statements about a lawyer were unclear and ambiguous. However, the trial court determined some of the interrogation could stand and other parts suppressed.

An appeal and eventual submission to the NJ Supreme Court was made. The NJ Supreme Court ruled today that once Rivas invoked his right to counsel, even though it may be considered ambiguous, the detectives were required to clarify the ambiguity or cease questioning. The detectives did neither and instead, continued to interrogate Rivas for almost 6 hours before eliciting a confession. Rivas statements and continued conversations after confessing could not be characterized as voluntarily initiated by Rivas since the questioning by police never truly ceased. Consequently, the court ruled that the statements need to be suppressed.

Under our state law privilege against self-incrimination, a suspect does not need to be articulate, clear or explicit in requesting counsel. Any indication of a desire for counsel will trigger an entitlement to counsel under our constitution. If the police are unsure of your request, they have a duty to clarify before continuing to question the suspect. If the police fail to follow Miranda, a confession can be suppressed as it was here.