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State v. Morton

July 3, 2008


Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed July 20, 2007. Appeal from Franklin District Court; JAMES J. SMITH, judge. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the district court is reversed. Judgment of the district court is affirmed.


1. When reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress, an appellate court determines, without reweighing the evidence, whether the facts underlying the district court's decision were supported by substantial competent evidence. The district court's legal conclusions drawn from those facts are reviewed de novo.

2. A two-part inquiry is used to determine whether an interrogation is custodial for purposes of Miranda. The first prong is: what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation? We review that determination under a substantial competent evidence standard. The second prong of the inquiry is: under the totality of those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave? That determination is reviewed de novo.

3. The following factors are to be considered in analyzing the circumstances surrounding the interrogation: (1) when and where the interrogation occurred; (2) how long it lasted; (3) how many police officers were present; (4) what the officers did and the defendant said; (5) the presence of actual physical restraint on the defendant or things equivalent to actual restraint such as drawn weapons or a guard stationed at the door; (6) whether the defendant is being questioned as a suspect or a witness; (7) how the defendant got to the place of questioning, that is, whether he or she came independently in response to a police request or was escorted by police officers; and (8) what happened after the interrogation--whether the defendant left freely, was detained, or was arrested. These factors are not to be applied mechanically or treated as if each factor bears equal weight. Each case is to be analyzed on its own facts; some factors will be present in one case and not in another, and the importance of each factor may vary from case to case.

4. The question of whether an interrogation is custodial must be determined based on an objective standard of how a reasonable person in the suspect's situation would perceive his or her circumstances. Courts must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and determine how a reasonable person in the position of the individual being questioned would gauge the breadth of his or her freedom of action.

5. The determination of "custody" for purposes of Miranda depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not on the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned.

6. Unwarned inculpatory statements obtained through non-custodial interrogation, although not barred by Miranda, may nevertheless be inadmissible if they were obtained in violation of the due process voluntariness requirement.

7. In determining whether a defendant's confession is voluntary, the essential inquiry is whether the statement was the product of the free and independent will of the accused. In making this determination, the court considers the following specific factors: (1) the accused's mental condition; (2) the manner and duration of the interrogation; (3) the ability of the accused to communicate with the outside world; (4) the accused's age, intellect, and background; (5) the fairness of the officers in conducting the interrogation; and (6) the accused's fluency in the English language.

8. A law enforcement officer's false statements to a suspect about the evidence implicating the suspect do not, by themselves, render the suspect's confession involuntary. Rather, they must be viewed in conjunction with the totality of the circumstances surrounding the confession to determine whether it was voluntarily made.

9. Under the totality of the circumstances in this case, the General Services Administration agent's conduct that included telling the defendant that she did not need an attorney for the interview, because it was not "that kind" of interview, rendered her statement involuntary and, thus, inadmissible.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosen, J.

The district court suppressed statements Karin J. Morton made in an interview with a criminal investigator for the Government Services Administration (GSA), for failure to provide Miranda warnings and because of unfair conduct that rendered her statements involuntary. The State filed an interlocutory appeal. In an unpublished decision filed July 20, 2007, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court, holding that Miranda warnings were not required because the interview was not custodial. We granted Morton's petition for review. Although the Court of Appeals correctly determined that Miranda warnings were not required because the interview was not custodial, we hold that the agent's conduct rendered Morton's statements involuntary and thus inadmissible. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals, and affirm the judgment of the district court.


Factual Background

Morton worked for the Ottawa Recreation Commission (ORC), a taxpayer-funded entity that provides recreation services for the community of Ottawa. As part of her job duties, Morton was authorized to purchase federal surplus government property for the ORC. Federal surplus property is not available to the general public and is subject to use restrictions, including that personal use of the property is prohibited for a set period of time.

In early 2004, Morton purchased several travel trailers through the federal program. Paul Schwartz, director of the federal surplus property program, spoke with Morton when she purchased the trailers and advised her of the restrictions. Morton told Schwartz the ORC intended to use the trailers to store equipment and for concessions. Schwartz, being an impassioned guardian entrusted with safeguarding the transfer and subsequent utilization of government-owned surplus property, began investigating ORC's use of the trailers after receiving a letter alleging that some of the surplus property was not being used in compliance with the program restrictions. Schwartz' intuition led him straight to Morton's residence, where he spotted one of the trailers.

Presumably noting that Morton's residence appeared to be a curious location for a publicly-operated concessions stand and/or storage facility, Schwartz sent a compliance check form to the ORC, requesting information regarding the location and current use of the surplus property. Morton completed and signed the form, attesting that all of the trailers were located at the Ottawa ballfields and were being used for concessions stands and quarters for staff and officials.

His duty served, Schwartz then handed the matter over to the GSA and local law enforcement. Officer Weingartner of the Ottawa Police Department began investigating the matter. Officer Weingartner found one of the travel trailers at Morton's residence. Later, he interviewed Morton. Morton was represented by an attorney at the interview. The officer provided Miranda warnings and the interview was recorded.

After the Ottawa Police Department completed its report of the investigation, the GSA began its own investigation. The matter was assigned to Special Agent John Pontius, a criminal investigator with the GSA. Agent Pontius reviewed the police report and determined that additional facts were needed about the compliance form. Agent Pontius decided to do a follow-up interview to ask questions about the form.

Agent Pontius got in touch with Morton, and she agreed to meet him at the Ottawa Police Department. Agent Pontius did not provide Morton with Miranda warnings prior to questioning her. During the interview, Morton admitted receiving the compliance form, admitted that she filled out the form, and identified her handwriting and her signature on the form.

Agent Pontius sent a summary of his interview to the county attorney's office and to his headquarters. Subsequently, Morton was charged with one count of making a false information under K.S.A. 21-3711, a severity level 8 nonperson felony.

The Suppression Hearing

Prior to trial, Morton filed a motion to suppress her statements to Agent Pontius, contending that the failure to provide her with Miranda warnings required suppression. The State filed a response, contending that Morton was not in custody and, therefore, no Miranda warnings were required. The State also argued that Morton's statements were voluntarily made and, therefore, were admissible.

The trial court held a hearing on the suppression motion. Both Agent Pontius and Morton testified. Their respective versions of events differ somewhat.

Morton's Testimony

Morton testified that several months after the Ottawa Police Department investigation was completed, her attorney left a message that a representative from the GSA had contacted his office and said a GSA agent wanted to talk to her about the trailer. She tried to call her attorney back, but he never returned her calls. After several weeks she used the GSA website to obtain Agent Pontius' phone number and left a message for him at his office.

Agent Pontius returned her call. He told her it was an informal interview and asked her if there was some alternative to the local police department where they could meet. She could not think of anyplace private enough, so they agreed on the police department. Morton testified she asked Agent Pontius if this was something she would need her attorney for. Agent Pontius told her, "[n]o, no, it's not that kind of interview. Some people bring their attorneys but it's nothing you'll need an attorney for."

According to Morton, at the time she agreed to meet with the agent she believed the criminal investigation was over. She had read in the paper that the county attorney had declined to prosecute, and her attorney had told her it was over. Morton testified she anticipated there would be a meeting with the GSA because the GSA was the surplus property oversight agency, and it would be deciding whether it would recover the trailer.

Agent Pontius and another special agent met her at the police station at the agreed upon time. He introduced himself and the other agent as "special agents." Morton testified that in her mind, a "special agent" was someone who works for the government and was not synonymous with "criminal investigator." They went into a break room. Before the interview started, Agent Pontius told Morton she was not under arrest; she did not have to answer their questions; and she could leave at any time. She was not handcuffed or physically restrained in any way.

Toward the end of the interview, Agent Pontius asked her, "Are you aware that this has been returned to the county attorney's office?" She replied that she was not. He asked her, "No one from the county attorney's office has called you?" She said, "No." He then said, "Well, it's back. It's back at her office." Morton testified that Agent Pontius told her that was part of the reason for the interview--to clarify some items on behalf of the county attorney because he was going to forward his report to the county attorney. After the interview, Agent Pontius told her he would have his report on the county attorney's desk in about 2 to 3 weeks.

Morton testified that she was not aware the interview was part of a criminal investigation until the end of the interview. Morton testified that she would have had counsel present at the interview if she had known the county attorney was considering criminal charges again. She said her attorney had advised her that if someone wanted to talk to her as part of the criminal investigation, she should agree, but arrange to have him present.

Agent Pontius' Testimony

Agent Pontius testified that he wanted to interview Morton to clarify facts about the federal documents that the local police did not ask during their interview. He considered Morton a suspect, and he was conducting a criminal investigation.

Before he contacted Morton to set up an interview, the agent called the attorney who had represented her during her previous interview with the police. According to the agent, the attorney's office said they were not sure they were going to be representing her, so he called Morton at home and left a message. When she called him back, they discussed the interview.

The agent testified that Morton voluntarily met him at the Ottawa Police Department Building. Another agent from his office was present. Before asking any questions, the agent told Morton that she was not under arrest; she was not being detained; the interview was not mandatory; she could stop talking to them at any time; and she could leave whenever she wanted.

The agent explained that he did not give Miranda warnings because they are only required when the individual is in custody. Agent Pontius testified that at no time was Morton handcuffed and the door to the interview room was not locked. She was not deprived of bathroom breaks, food, or water for a significant period of time and was free to leave at any time. After the interview, Morton was not arrested and she was allowed to leave.

Agent Pontius denied telling Morton she did not need an attorney for the interview. Agent Pontius testified he told her he was conducting an investigation, he identified himself as a criminal investigator, and he told her he wanted to ask her some questions concerning the matter she had been interviewed about. He also testified that as a rule, GSA special agents identify themselves with their credentials, which state they are criminal investigators.

The Suppression Ruling

The trial court granted the motion to suppress. The basis for the trial court's decision is difficult to discern, but the ruling appears to have been based on two grounds: the agent's failure to provide Miranda warnings and the court's conclusion that the ...

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