Can Invoking The Right to Counsel Be Construed As An Inference of Guilt?

No, a defendant’s right to have an attorney present during interrogation is guaranteed by both the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona.

Accordingly, any statements made during the interrogation of a defendant in custody may be admissible as evidence only if the defendant is fully aware of their rights and made their statements voluntarily.

On July 20th, 2021, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey decided in State v. Dorff, that the trial court erred in denying the Defendant’s motion to suppress her statements to law enforcement during one of two separate interrogations. The Court came to this conclusion based on the circumstances surrounding the Defendant’s statements to law enforcement and the violation of her right to counsel.

The case against this Defendant stems from her alleged involvement in the death of an overdose victim. Prior to both custodial interrogations, the detectives read the Defendant her Miranda rights. However, during the second interrogation, the Defendant made multiple references to her need for an attorney. Although the detectives made clear that it was her decision if she wished to have an attorney present, one detective suggested that she would not need an attorney if she didn’t do anything wrong.

Despite the Defendant’s several references to possibly needing an attorney present, the interrogation continued and the Defendant admitted to providing the overdose victim with a controlled dangerous substance.

On appeal from her guilty plea conviction of first-degree strict liability for drug induced death, the Defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the statements made during the interrogations because the detectives failed to honor her invocation of right to counsel.

The Court found that the statements made by Defendant in the first interrogation were admissible because an assessment of the totality of the circumstances revealed that the Miranda rights were properly administered, the Defendant made no mention of needing an attorney, she was alert and not under the influence of any drugs, and the environment was non-threatening.

However, with respect to the second interrogation, the Court found that the Defendant’s right to counsel was not honored by detectives. The Defendant’s statement, “That’s why I feel like I might need a lawyer”, was enough to constitute an invocation of counsel.

As stated in the Court’s previous decision in State v. Reed, “a suspect need not be articulate, clear or explicit in requesting counsel; any indication of a desire for counsel, however ambiguous, will trigger entitlement of counsel”. Therefore, the detective’s questioning should have ceased after the Defendant’s reference to her need for an attorney and should have only continued after the Defendant clarified if she wanted an attorney present.

The Court also considered the significance of the detective’s suggestion that the Defendant did not need a lawyer if she did not do anything wrong. In the Court’s opinion, such a statement could allow an interrogee to believe that law enforcement will infer guilt from a request to have an attorney present. Since that suggestion was both inaccurate and misleading, the Court reversed the trial court’s denial of the Defendant’s motion to suppress the statements made during the second interrogation.

Thus, having an attorney present at custodial interrogations is a right protected by both Federal and State laws and therefore an invocation of that right is never an inference of guilt.

If you, a family member or friend are being contacted by law enforcement for questioning in Jersey City or the surrounding Hudson, Essex and Bergen County area, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a free and confidential consultation.

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