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Media Alerts - Tio Dinero Sessoms v Randy Grounds, Warden - Ninth Circuit
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November 1, 2014
  Tio Dinero Sessoms v Randy Grounds, Warden - Ninth Circuit
Headline: Ninth Circuit reverses the denial of a habeas corpus petition based on the California Court of Appeal's unreasonable application of U.S. Supreme Court precedent in finding that a defendant's request for an attorney was not unequivocal or unambiguous.

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure

Issue(s) Presented: Whether it was unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that a reasonable officer would have been perplexed as to whether a defendant was asking for an attorney based on the following statements when looked at together:
. "There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a-a lawyer present while we do this?"
. "Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys...uh, give me a lawyer."

Brief Summary: Tio Sessoms, the defendant, stabbed and killed a Sheriff while burglarizing his home. Sessoms then fled from California but later surrendered to police. Sessoms was in custody awaiting interrogation for approximately four days before detectives from California arrived. Within 40 seconds of the detectives entering the interrogation room Sessoms said "There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a-a lawyer present while we do this?" and "Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys...uh, give me a lawyer." The interrogation continued, the detectives cautioned Sessoms against speaking to an attorney and then read the Miranda warning. Sessoms then agreed to speak with the detectives and made incriminating statements.

Sessoms filed a motion to suppress the incriminating statements and then after being convicted moved for a new trial based on prejudicial Miranda warning. The trial court denied both motions and sentenced Sessoms to life without parole.

The California Court of Appeal ruled that Sessoms's statements did not qualify as an unequivocal or unambiguous request for counsel and as such neither statement was sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would understand the statements to be a request for an attorney.

Sessoms then filed a federal habeas petition arguing that he had invoked his right to counsel, but the district court denied the petition.

The case eventually warranted an en banc review in light of new caselaw that suggests that Davis's requirement of an unambiguous invocation of a right to counsel applies to pre-Miranda statements.

Setting the framework for review here, the 9th Circuit went over the evolution of Miranda and the subsequent cases. Based on the totality of circumstances, the 9th Circuit held that while the Court of Appeal correctly identified the governing cases and the facts of the case that the Court of Appeal inappropriately applied that caselaw to the facts of this case. The Court of Appeal erred by considering the two statements completely separate from each other and without any context to the rest of the interrogation.

Sessoms's first request that "[t]here wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a-a lawyer present while we do this?" was deemed to be a request coached in a deferential tone rather than an ambiguous request. Similarly, Sessoms's second request of "Give me a lawyer" was determined to have only one reasonable interpretation: that he was asking for a lawyer.

Ultimately Sessoms's statements, when taken together, were far from being ambiguous and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Extended Summary: In 1999 Tio Sessoms, the defendant, repeatedly stabbed and killed a Sheriff while burglarizing his home. Sessoms then fled from California to Oklahoma where he surrendered to police approximately 3 weeks later upon learning there was a warrant for his arrest. Sessoms was then in custody for four days while waiting for detectives from California to fly out to question him. When the detectives did arrive there was a very brief exchange of pleasantries and, approximately 40 seconds after detectives entered the room, Sessoms said "There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a-a lawyer present while we do this?" and "Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys...uh, give me a lawyer." Rather than stopping the interrogation, the detectives warned Sessoms about the "risks" of speaking with an attorney and told him they already had all the evidence against him. It was only after all of this occurred that the detectives read Sessoms his Miranda rights, at which point Sessoms agreed to talk and made incriminating statements.

The trial court denied Sessoms's motion to suppress the incriminating statements and Sessoms was convicted at trial of first-degree murder, robbery, and burglary. Sessoms moved for a new trial based on prejudicial Miranda error, but the trial court denied the motion and Sessoms was sentenced to life without parole.

Upon appeal, the Court of Appeal ruled that, while Sessoms's statements explicitly referred to an attorney, neither statement was an unequivocal or unambiguous request for counsel and as such neither statement was sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would understand the statements to be a request for an attorney.

Sessoms then filed a federal habeas petition arguing that he had invoked his right to counsel, but the district court denied the petition.

A divided three-judge 9th Circuit panel upheld the district court's denial of Sessoms's habeas petition on the grounds that Sessoms's statements were made prior to his Miranda waiver. In a rehearing en banc, the 9th Circuit reasoned that Davis's requirement that a request for counsel be unambiguous only applied after a suspect had been informed of his Miranda rights and reversed the district court's denial based of habeas relief.

The Supreme Court then granted the state's petition for a writ of certiorari and remanded the case in light of new caselaw that suggested that Davis's requirement of an unambiguous invocation of a right to counsel applied to pre-Miranda statements. The case once again went before the 9th Circuit for rehearing en banc.

Setting the framework for review here, the 9th Circuit reviewed the evolution of Miranda and the subsequent cases. Miranda set a clear bright-line rule that a person must be warned that he has the right to remain silent and has the right to the presence of an attorney in order to protect his 5th Amendment's right against self-incrimination. This was particularly important given that modern in-custody interrogations have become largely psychologically oriented. Later, in Edwards v. Arizona, the Court explained that, once the right to counsel is asserted, the interrogation must immediately stop. In doing so, the Court hoped to ensure that officers would not badger defendants into waiving Miranda rights. Three years later, in Smith, the Court ruled that questioning must cease after the first request for counsel and that courts should not examine subsequent responses to questions to determine whether initial requests were ambiguous. In Davis, however, the Court held that a suspect must unambiguously request counsel. The Court has also held in two subsequent cases that merely remaining mute is not sufficient to invoke the privilege.

The Court then applied the above mentioned caselaw to the facts here and determined that Sessoms unequivocally claimed the privilege.

The 9th Circuit held that while the Court of Appeal correctly identified the governing cases, it inappropriately applied that caselaw to the facts of this case by considering Sessoms's two statements completely separate from each other and without any context to the rest of the interrogation.

Beginning with the circumstances leading up to Sessoms's requests, the detectives used many of the tactics that Miranda was designed to prevent: no warning was provided up front and the detectives immediately delved into the heart of their questions. This type of situation presents the danger that people like Sessoms could feel compelled to speak despite their constitutional rights. Despite these initial pressures, however, Sessoms still managed to request counsel not once, but twice.

Sessoms's first request that "[t]here wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a-a lawyer present while we do this?" was not simply a question about if he should speak to an attorney; it was a request coached in a deferential tone. There is also little doubt that the detectives understood the question given that, when Sessoms later asked in paralleled phrasing if it would be possible for him to speak with his father, the detectives immediately responded "Well no...." Consequently, the only appropriate response to Sessoms's first request would have been to read him his Miranda rights at that time.

Sessoms then followed up this first request with a second request with even plainer language: "give me a lawyer." The Court of Appeal reasoned that this was merely Sessoms stating his father's advice to him, yet the only reasonable interpretation of those words is that Sessoms was requesting an attorney. While it can be argued, inappropriately in the court's opinion, that the first request may have been ambiguous, when taken in conjunction with the second request there was no room for doubt that Sessoms wanted a lawyer. This point is driven home by the fact that, after Sessoms made his requests, the detective felt the need to caution Sessoms against speaking to a lawyer prior to speaking with the detectives; after all, "[w]hy would [the detective] need to talk Sessoms out of an attorney if he hadn't understood that Sessoms wanted an attorney?"

Given the importance of these circumstances and the context they shed on Sessoms's requests, the Court held that California Court of Appeal's finding that Sessoms's request for counsel was ambiguous to be unreasonable and reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Dissents:
Chief Judge Kozinski reluctantly dissented, explaining that there was no doubt that the detectives were aware that Sessoms was asking for counsel and used their leverage to redirect him, but that the correct question is simply whether it was unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that a reasonable officer would have been confused as to whether Sessoms was asking for an attorney. Despite this, however, Chief Judge Kozinski also stated a certain joy that the majority did not share the same view given the relatively dirty tactics used to obtain Sessoms's statements here.

Circuit Judge Callahan dissented separately to state that the Supreme Court's decision should have precluded the majority opinion from finding that Sessoms's statements were so unambiguous as to render the Court of Appeal's opinion unreasonable.

Circuit Judge Murguia, with whom Kozinski, Chief Judge and Silverman, Callahan, Ikuta, Circuit Judges join, also dissented on the grounds that the correct standard of review for reversing the district court was whether "any fairminded jurist could determine" that Sessoms's reference to an attorney might have made a reasonable officer believe only that Sessoms might be invoking the right to counsel. Ultimately, the dissenting judges believed such a fairminded jurist could reach such a decision here and thus it was inappropriate to reverse the trial court's ruling.

For the full opinion: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/da...14/09/22/08-17790.pdf

Panel: Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge and Mary Schroeder, Barry Silverman, M. Margaret McKeown, Kim Wardlaw, Raymond Fisher, Richard Paez, Conseulo Callahan, Milan Smith, Jr., Sandra Ikuta, and Mary Murguia, Circuit Judges.

Date of Issued Opinion: September 22, 2014

Docket Number: 08-17790

Decided: Reversed.

Case Alert Author: Seth DuMouchel

Counsel: Eric Weaver (argued) for Petitioner-Appellant.

Jeffrey Firestone (argued), Deputy Attorney General; Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California; Michael P. Farrell, Senior Assistant Attorney General; and Charles A. French, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, California for Respondent-Appellee.

Peter C. Pfaffenroth, HL Rogers and Brian A. Fox, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington D.C.; Mark E. Haddad and Douglas A. Axel, Sidley Austin LLP, Los Angeles, California; and David M. Porter, Office of the Federal Defender, Sacramento, California, for Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Author of Opinion: McKeown, Circuit Judge.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 11/01/2014 04:39 PM     9th Circuit  

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