United States v. Adams: “I Don’t Want to Talk, Man” Is Not A Sufficient Invocation of the Right to Remain Silent?

 

Kevin Kifer

Introduction

Given the “inherently compelling pressures” of stationhouse interrogations,[1] honoring a defendant’s invocation of the right to remain silent is critical to ensuring that any statements made during custodial interrogation are in fact voluntary. In United States v. Adams, the Eighth Circuit recently addressed whether the phrase “I don’t want to talk, man” was an adequate invocation of the right to remain silent during a stationhouse interrogation.[2]

Background

Defendant Adams was recognizable from a bank’s security camera footage as one of two men participating in an armed robbery.[3] On August 16, 2013, local police arrested Adams, informed him of his Miranda rights, and terminated the interrogation after Adams said he did not want to answer questions.[4] On August 30, 2013, an FBI agent interviewed Adams after advising him again of his Miranda rights.[5] Agent Ball sought Adams’ signature on a form indicating that Adams understood his rights, but Adams refused to sign.[6] Ball advised Adams that he could refuse to answer questions, answer only some questions, or terminate the interview.[7] When Ball asked Adams whether he wanted to talk, the following conversation took place:

ADAMS: No, I don’t think I wanna, you know—

BALL: I’ll explain what’s going on. We’ve got you in the … bank. We’ve talked to a lot of people and collected a lot of information. And that’s why you’re here, for robbing the bank.

ADAMS: I was at my girlfriend’s Rebecca’s—

BALL: Okay, so you were—

ADAMS: Nah, I don’t want to talk, man. I mean, I—

BALL: Okay, so you were saying you were at your girlfriend Rebecca’s house.—

ADAMS: I mean—

BALL: That’s where the problem is, okay, because we know you weren’t at your girlfriend Rebecca’s house.—

ADAMS: I just, I just, I just wanna, you know what I’m saying?—

BALL: Okay, okay, that’s fine, but just so you know, your alibi of being at Rebecca’s house all day, every second—

ADAMS: No, I wasn’t there all … I wasn’t there all day.

BALL: Okay.[8]

Adams and Ball then discussed other subjects related to the robbery.[9] Adams sought to suppress the statements, but the motion was denied and Adams was convicted of armed bank robbery.[10] Adams appealed his conviction, partly on the theory that the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress was a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights.[11] More specifically, Adams argued that the lower court erred in finding that his statement, “I don’t want to talk, man,” was not an unequivocal invocation of his right to remain silent.[12] In addition, Adams argued that the statements were involuntary.[13]

Court’s Analysis

The court reasoned that when Adams said “I mean” immediately after stating “I don’t want to talk, man,” Adams had intended to clarify his earlier statement.[14] The intent to clarify signaled to the court that the statement was ambiguous, in the same way that “I guess” would make the statement “you better get me a lawyer” ambiguous.[15] Since Adams then talked with Ball for another 16 minutes without clarifying or unequivocally invoking his right to remain silent, the court upheld the lower court’s finding that Adams did not indicate a “clear, consistent expression of a desire to remain silent.”[16] The court also found an implied waiver of Adams’ Miranda rights in the fact that Adams continued to talk after indicating that he understood the Miranda warning.[17]

The court also rejected Adams’ argument that the statements were involuntary by virtue of Adams’ poor grades in high school and community college as well as Ball’s persistence in asking questions after Adams had stated, “I don’t want to talk, man.”[18] Although a defendant’s “mental acuity” is relevant to the “totality of the circumstances” analysis of voluntariness, the court found that the officers did not engage in coercive tactics and Adams understood his rights.[19] Furthermore, Adams had successfully invoked his right to silence in the previous interrogation, indicating that Adams was “familiar with police interrogations.”[20]

At any rate, the court reasoned, any error in denying the motion to suppress would have been harmless, given the overwhelming amount of evidence—including eyewitness testimony, security camera footage, and incriminating texts and prison phone calls by Adams—of Adams’ guilt.[21]

Author’s Analysis

Although the court came to the right result in this case, there is a danger here. By offering any answers to Ball’s questioning, Adams impliedly waived his right to remain silent. However, the transcript reads like a list of failed attempts by Adams to invoke his right to silence and attempts by Ball to overcome those efforts. By finding Adams’ statements not to be “unequivocal,” the court implicitly held that persistent interruption of the defendant’s speech is not a form of psychological coercion. In other words, repeatedly deflecting what appear to be Adams’ repeated attempts to invoke his right to silence does not constitute coercion, on the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning. Rightly or wrongly, the courts continue to move away from the original language of Miranda:

If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease. At this point he has shown that he intends to exercise his Fifth Amendment privilege; any statement taken after the person invokes his privilege cannot be other than the product of compulsion, subtle or otherwise.[22]

In this case, the defendant understood his Miranda rights and fumbled to invoke one of those rights. It appears that as long as a defendant’s attempt to invoke the right to silence remains unclear—whether through a defendant’s inarticulate manner of speaking or an interrogator’s persistent interruptions—any statements made by a defendant in similar circumstances will be admissible at trial. Moreover, in addition to being clear and unambiguous, the court required the consistent expression of a desire to remain silent. That requirement may lead a defendant to repeatedly but incompletely attempt to invoke the right to silence. Law enforcement would not be required to cease the interrogation despite the clear intention of the defendant not to talk. This may lead to wearing down a defendant in the same manner as more recognized forms of psychological coercion.

Conclusion

The Eighth Circuit has decided that the statement “I don’t want to talk, man” is not in itself an unambiguous invocation of the right to remain silent. When followed by the phrase “I mean” and answers to police questioning, the previous statement does not require law enforcement to cease questioning. Furthermore, repeated interruption of a defendant’s attempts to invoke his right to silence will not be seen as a form of coercion by the Eighth Circuit. In Adams, the statements at issue were not material to the outcome of the case, but future cases may involve more substantive information coming to light as the defendant tries but fails to invoke the right to silence.

Kevin Kifer*

Edited By: Tyler Winn

[1] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 467 (1966).

[2] United States v. Adams, No. 14-3339, 2016 WL 1399354, at *1 (8th Cir. Apr. 11, 2016).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Adams, 2016 WL 1399354, at *1.

[8] Id. at *1–2.

[9] Id. at *2.

[10] Id. at *2–3.

[11] Id. at *3.

[12] Adams, 2016 WL 1399354, at *3.  

[13] Id. at *4.

[14] Id. at *3.

[15] See id.

[16] Id.

[17] Adams, 2016 WL 1399354, at *4.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at *5.

[22] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 473–74 (1966) (emphasis added).

* Saint Louis University School of Law, J.D. Candidate 2017