Student accused of murder asks court to dismiss statement | TCTA
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Student accused of murder asks court to dismiss statement

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A seventh grader accused of murder asked a judge to dismiss his statement to police, claiming that he was not read his rights and that he did not understand he could decline to answer questions during the police interview.

A 14-year-old witness told police that the seventh grader, named Joshua, attempted to rob a woman, then shot the woman in the back of the head after she tried to pepper spray him. The police were also informed by the Houston Independent School District that a student reported that he was shown a cellphone video of a homicide by someone who was later identified as Joshua.

Two police officers went to Joshua's school to interview him. Joshua was pulled from his classroom by the school district police and escorted to meet with the officers next to the school's on-site police office. The interview room was a rectangular office with a desk and table. Joshua sat in a chair two to three feet from the entrance; the door was closed. He was not handcuffed. The officers offered Joshua a snack or something to drink, but he declined.

After some small talk about the Houston Rockets game the night before, one of the officers said "Alright well we wanted to sit here and talk to you. Now at the end of this interview, whatever—we wanted to sit here and talk to you and if you want to sit and talk to us that would be great. At the end of the interview you're going back to class. Okay? There's no warrant for your arrest, okay? You're not going to jail." Joshua responded, "Yes, sir."

At no time did the officers read Joshua his rights. Neither officer confirmed with Joshua that he understood what they had said to him. Neither officer told Joshua he did not have to answer the officers' questions or that he was free to return to class without participating in the interview. No school official or other trusted adult was in the room. Joshua was alone with two police officers behind a closed door near the school police office with a third officer not far away. Joshua appeared calm during the interview, which was recorded.

The officers explained that they wanted to talk with Joshua. They confronted him with evidence that he shot a woman during a robbery. Joshua admitted that he intended to rob the woman, but claimed he did not intend to shoot her. At the end of the interview, which lasted about 18 minutes, the officers returned Joshua to class. Joshua was arrested five days after police questioned him.

At trial, Joshua testified that twice he asked the officers if he could call his mother, but he was not allowed to do so. Joshua testified that he did not understand that he was free to leave, or he would have asked to leave. Joshua testified that when the officers said that if he "wanted to talk to them that would be great," he responded "yes" because he understood that he was not going to jail, but he did not understand that he did not have to talk to the officers. Joshua also stated that he did not answer all the officers' questions, and when asked if "[he] felt like [he] could have not answered the questions," he responded, "Yes, ma'am," but also stated that he "still felt uncomfortable there." Joshua also testified that the officers told him that "if I didn't [talk to them] I would be going to jail."

Joshua also argued that his statement to the police should not be admitted during his trial because he had not been brought before a magistrate to read him his Miranda rights, as is required for juveniles. The trial court denied the motion and Joshua appealed.

On appeal, the court noted that Joshua was entitled to be read his rights if he was "in custody" when he gave his statement. To determine whether a juvenile is in custody, the court will examine the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and determine whether a reasonable person would have felt at liberty to terminate the encounter and leave.

Applying that standard to this case, the court found that Joshua was in custody when he was questioned by the police. At the time that he was questioned, the police had probable cause to arrest him and they informed him of that fact by confronting him with their evidence of the crime. Additionally, the interrogation did not take place in Joshua's home, but in a school, where he had to be and had no control over the environment. In other words, the police chose a location where Joshua could not voluntarily leave without consequences.

Because of these facts, a reasonable child would not have felt that he had the ability to leave. Joshua was therefore "in custody" at the time of the interrogation and should have been taken before a magistrate to have his Miranda rights read to him. His statement to the police could not be admitted.