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Right to Counsel Must be Clear, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Says

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

Imagine this: You have a client, a nineteen-year-old boy, who is under arrest for murder. He doesn't fully know his right to counsel and tells the police that his father "asked me to ask you guys -- uh, to get me a lawyer."

Last week, Tio Dinero Sessoms was denied habeas relief by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In his petition, he argued that he was denied the right to counsel when he unequivocally asserted the right to Sacramento homicide officers.

But is asking for a lawyer in such a casual way really an unequivocal assertion of the right to counsel?

Quick Facts:

In 1999, Tio Sessoms and two other men committed burglary in Sacramento. During the course of the murder, one of Sessom's accomplices choked and stabbed the resident of the house.

Sessoms went to Oklahoma a short time later, where he surrendered to police and awaited extradition to California. During that time, two California officers came to Oklahoma to question Sessoms.

During the course of the questioning, Sessoms said "There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a -- a lawyer present while we do this?" Then, he explained that his father was concerned that his words would be twisted by the officers and had "asked me to ask you guys -- uh to get me a lawyer."

The officers then explained to Sessoms that he did have a right to counsel but that the interview was being recorded, to alleviate any concerns of Sessom's words being twisted out of context by the officers.

After hearing his Miranda rights, Tio Sessoms agreed to confess to his involvement in the crime. Prior to the trial, however, Sessoms tried to have his confession suppressed under the premise that he "unequivocally requested the assistance of an attorney."

The trial court concluded that he never asserted that right but rather, inquired about it. They also found that he had confessed after being read his Miranda rights. He was subsequently found guilty of first degree murder, robbery and burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

The Law:

The law, as stated in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, is quite simple on this matter. The accused may not be questioned further once the right to counsel has been invoked by accused, unless the accused himself initiates more communication or conversation on the matter.

In the case at hand, Sessom's assertion was not held by the court to be "unequivocal" and it was ambiguous, at best, without imposing the requirement of the detectives to ask further clarifying questions.

As such, his petition for habeas was denied.

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