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What Happens When a Criminal Suspect Does Not Fully Understand Their Rights in a Police Interrogation?

Before police may lawfully start to question a criminal suspect, they must advise that suspect of their constitutional rights–namely, the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The suspect must understand and acknowledge these rights before any interrogation can proceed. And of course, if the suspect actually invokes their rights, the interrogation must cease immediately.

CCA Reverses Intermediate Appellate Court Ruling Based on Legal Theory Not Directly Advanced by the Parties

Unfortunately, many suspects who are younger or not native citizens of the United States may not fully understand and appreciate their rights when actually sitting in a police interrogation room. This can lead to confusion as to what the suspect understands and has consented to. Police and prosecutors may try take advantage of this confusion to solicit a confession from the suspect.

A recent decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), State v. Castanedanieto, illustrates the difficult position that many suspects find themselves in. This case involves a defendant who is a native of El Salvador. Police arrested the defendant when he was 18 years old on suspicion of aggravated robbery.

A detective interviewed the defendant just after his arrest. The detective advised the defendant of his constitutional rights. The defendant indicated that he did not fully understand English, so the detective proceeded to read them in Spanish. The detective then asked, “Are you willing to talk to me?” The defendant replied, “I don’t understand.” Nevertheless, the detective proceeded to ask several questions about the defendant’s background. The defendant ultimately admitted to using illegal drugs the previous evening.

gavel and book in court room

Later that day, the defendant was arraigned before a magistrate, who again advised him of his rights. At this point, the defendant invoked his right to counsel. The next day, however, police requested a second interview with the defendant without an attorney. A different detective conducted this second interview, during which the plaintiff apparently confessed to the robbery.

Before the trial court, the defendant’s attorney moved to suppress his client’s statements, including his confessions, made during both interviews. The defense advanced two theories: First, the defendant stated he did not understand his rights before the detective proceeded with the first interview. Alternatively, the police interfered with the defendant’s right to counsel when they conducted the second interview.

The trial judge granted the motion to suppress. The prosecution appealed that ruling to an intermediate appellate court in Dallas. That court affirmed the trial judge’s decision. But it did not rely on either of the theories expressly advanced by the defense. Instead, the appellate court found the first detective effectively “coerced” the defendant’s confession, which carried over and tainted the second interview and confession.

The CCA held the intermediate court exceeded its authority by relying on a “third, unargued theory” to affirm the trial court. Effectively, the intermediate court deprived the state of an “opportunity to litigate” the “coercion” theory. The CCA therefore returned the case to the intermediate court for further proceedings.

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

It is not clear as of this writing what will ultimately happen with this particular defendant’s case. But this litigation should help to emphasize the importance of understanding and invoking your rights in a timely manner. Remember, you do not have to answer police questions at all. And if you do consent to an interview, it should never be outside the presence of a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney who can advise you throughout the process. If you need representation or assistance, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today. Call (281) 280-0100.