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Questioning of Defendant by CPS Worker Violated Miranda: 2nd Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's a rare occasion indeed when a federal court upholds a state prisoner's federal habeas corpus claim. The procedural bar to getting relief -- showing that a state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" -- is quite high.

But Shawn Jackson made it over the hurdle.

In 2000, police arrested Jackson after they received a 911 call from three women at his home -- including his 14-year-old daughter -- alleging that he raped them several times that night. Once arrested, Jackson invoked Miranda and clammed up. Then, Kathy Bonisteel, a Child Protective Services worker, came by to investigate the child abuse charges. Instead of staying silent again, he willingly talked to her, essentially giving the prosecution everything it could have hoped for during the interview.

Jackson was convicted, and through state appeals, he argued that the use of his statements to Bonisteel violated Miranda. The Second Circuit, agreeing with the federal district court, found that the questioning did violate his Fifth Amendment rights.

Incriminating Questions

Miranda protects suspects only when there's a custodial interrogation going on. The state court rejected Jackson's Miranda claim because Bonisteel, a CPS worker interviewing Jackson for a civil claim, "was not engaged in law enforcement activity," meaning the questioning could not have been an interrogation for Miranda purposes.

The Second Circuit disagreed: "[W]hether the questioning official was engaged in 'law enforcement activity' at the time incriminating statements are made is not the touchstone for applying the Miranda warning requirements," the court said. What's important is whether Bonisteel "objectively 'should have known' that her questions were 'reasonably likely to evoke an incriminating response.'"

Because she knew that Jackson was being held for criminal charges related to the very same allegations she was investigating, and that what he told her could form the basis of a criminal prosecution, Bonisteel should have known. Consequently, Jackson should have been told that anything he told Bonisteel would be used against him at the criminal trial.

No Harmless Error, Either

Even rarer is the case where a federal court finds no harmless error in a federal habeas claim. Normally, even if the federal court finds a violation, it concludes that the violation wouldn't have affected the outcome of the case. Not so here: the Second Circuit said admitting Jackson's statements was harmful, as "the State was unable to present any physical evidence [of raping his daughter] at trial." Consequently, the prosecution's case rested heavily on Jackson's own statements, and since those statements shouldn't have been admitted, the court vacated Jackson's conviction for this rape count.

Bottom Line

Miranda remains as it has before. Police can't send someone in to speak to a suspect with the hope and intent that the informant will elicit incriminating statements. The fact that the "informant" is a civil government official is immaterial if the suspect's statements to the informant will send him directly to jail without passing Go.

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