Does a Police Officer Have to Answer a Question Concerning Suspect's Rights Even If It Seems Like a Rhetorical Question ?
In Almeida v. State, 737 So. 2d 520 (Fla.), the defendant had been picked up by police in connection with a murder and taken to headquarters, where he was read and waived his rights.
After the defendant had confessed to the murder, the detective sought to begin a formal recorded interrogation.
The detective again read Almeida his rights, and then asked Almeida, "Do you wish to speak to me now without an attorney present?" Almeida replied, 'Well, what good is an attorney going to do?" the detective did not respond to the question, and Almeida ultimately confessed to the murder, as well as two others.
On appeal, the supreme court found that the question posed by Almeida was a "bona fide question" and not a rhetorical question, and that officers had violated Almeida's rights by ignoring the question.
The court distinguished Owen on the basis that there the defendant had attempted to invoke his rights after waiving those rights, while the case before it involved a clear and unambiguous question which sought information regarding Almeida's right to counsel.
The court explained:
The current scenario is not embraced within our holding in Owen.
The type of utterance at issue in Owen was an equivocal statement which -- pursuant to Davis -- required no clarification and could not trump the clear waiver of rights Owen had made earlier.
The type of utterance at issue here, on the other hand, was an unequivocal question that was prefatory to--and possibly determinative of--the invoking of a right and which cast doubt on the knowing and intelligent nature of the prior waiver.
Detective Mink plainly asked Almeida if he wanted to proceed without a lawyer, and Almeida just as plainly asked the officer what good a lawyer would do.
There was nothing equivocal about this exchange and certainly nothing unclear about Almeida's question -- it was a simple, direct question, susceptible of but a single interpretation.
Almeida very clearly was asking the officer for fundamental information concerning his right to counsel. Id. at 524.
The Almeida court's holding was that:
If, at any point during custodial interrogation, a suspect asks a clear question concerning his or her rights, the officer must stop the interview and make a good-faith effort to give a simple and straightforward answer.
To do otherwise -- i.e., to give an evasive answer, or to skip over the question, or to override or "steamroll" the suspect--is to actively promote the very coercion that Traylor was intended to dispel.
A suspect who has been ignored or overridden concerning a right will be reluctant to exercise that right freely.
Once the officer properly answers the question, the officer may then resume the interview (provided of course that the defendant in the meantime has not invoked his or her rights).
Any statement obtained in violation of this proscription violates the Florida Constitution and cannot be used by the State. See Traylor v. State, 596 So. 2d 957 at 966. Id. at 525.
Although the Almeida court had distinguished Owen, it found no conflict between Owen and the case before it, explaining that the two decisions worked "hand-in-hand":
Our holding today works hand-in-hand with our decision in Owen in defining a few basic rules governing custodial utterances.
We held in Owen that police must honor a clear statement invoking a suspect's rights. See generally Owen, 696 So. 2d at 719.
We hold today the police similarly must answer a clear question concerning a suspect's rights.
These twin rulings establish an unmistakable bright line for law enforcement. Id. at 525-526.