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Wilson v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

June 21, 2019



          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Citrus County, Richard A. Howard, Judge.

          Jorge León Chalela, of Jorge León Chalela, P.A., Tampa, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Kristen L. Davenport, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, for Appellee.

          ORFINGER, J.

         Curtis Marco Wilson appeals his conviction and sentence for first-degree murder. The sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in admitting into evidence statements he made to police after he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to counsel. We affirm.

         Wilson was arrested and taken to the St. Petersburg Police Department where Citrus County detectives, investigating a murder, questioned him. Before questioning him, the detectives read Wilson his Miranda[1] rights. Wilson did not request an attorney or invoke his right to remain silent. Wilson steadfastly denied that he had ever been to Crystal River where the murder occurred or that he knew the other suspects or anything about the murder. When one of the detectives showed Wilson a warrant for his arrest for first-degree murder, Wilson said: "I don't know what to tell you. I need a lawyer, man." The detectives ceased further questioning and Wilson was transported to Citrus County Jail.

         Five days later, the same Citrus County detectives went to the Citrus County jail and questioned Wilson again. After he was again read his Miranda rights, Wilson agreed to speak to the detectives, but said that he could not tell them much because he had to speak to his lawyer first. The detectives urged Wilson to tell them what he knew about the murder, informing him of the evidence they had against him and telling him that the other suspects were claiming that Wilson alone had committed the murder. Wilson adamantly denied having any part in the murder and repeatedly told the detectives that his lawyer would figure out why the other suspects were trying to blame him for it. He did, however, admit to being in Crystal River around the time of the murder.

         Before trial, Wilson moved to suppress the statements he made during both interrogations, arguing that both interviews were inadmissible because he had invoked his right to counsel during the first interrogation, requiring the detectives to cease questioning him. The trial court denied Wilson's motion, finding that he had never unequivocally requested the assistance of a lawyer at any time during questioning. At the subsequent trial, Wilson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

         We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress as a mixed question of law and fact. O'Hare v. State, 263 So.3d 255, 258 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019). We defer to the trial court's findings of fact as long as they are supported by competent, substantial evidence, but we review de novo a trial court's application of law to the facts. Delhall v. State, 95 So.3d 134, 150 (Fla. 2012). Though when reviewing such a motion we defer to a trial court's findings of fact, this deference does not fully apply when, as here, the findings are based mainly on review of videotapes and transcripts as opposed to live testimony. State v. Carter, 172 So.3d 538, 539-40 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015); see, e.g., Almeida v. State, 737 So.2d 520, 524 n.9 (Fla. 1999) ("The trial court had no special vantage point in reviewing this tape. Based on our review of the transcript and tape, we conclude that the record evidence is legally insufficient to support the trial court's finding.").

         To resolve this appeal, we must answer two questions. First, did Wilson clearly invoke his right to counsel? And second, if he did, was the admission of his statements following his invocation harmful error? We address each question in turn.

         "[A] suspect subject to custodial interrogation has the right to consult with an attorney and to have counsel present during questioning, and . . . the police must explain this right to him before questioning begins." Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 457 (1994) (citing Miranda, 384 U.S. at 469-73). If the suspect requests an attorney, the police must immediately cease all questioning. Rhodes v. State, 219 So.3d 251, 252 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017).

         The suspect's request for counsel must be clear and unambiguous. Davis, 512 U.S. at 459. Whether such a request is unambiguous is an objective inquiry designed to determine if "a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney." Id.; see, e.g., Daniel v. State, 238 So.3d 1283, 1285-87 (Fla. 5th DCA 2018) (finding that suspect's statement, "Look, can I have a lawyer, man," was unequivocal request for counsel); Rhodes, 219 So.3d at 252 (finding that suspect's statement, "I need to see a lawyer," was unequivocal request for counsel); Bean v. State, 752 So.2d 644, 646 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000) (concluding that statement, "I should be able to talk to a lawyer," was unequivocal request for counsel). "But if a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, our precedents do not require the cessation of questioning." Davis, 512 U.S. at 459; see, e.g., Walker v. State, 957 So.2d 560, 571, 574 (Fla. 2007) (concluding that suspect's statement, "I think I may need a lawyer," followed by suspect asking police officer if he needed legal counsel was not unambiguous request for counsel); Spivey v. State, 45 So.3d 51, 54 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (finding suspect's statement, "I mean if I am being held and I'm being charged with something I need to be on the phone calling my lawyer," was not unequivocal request for counsel that would require termination of questioning).

         Applying that standard here, we conclude that Wilson's statement, "I need a lawyer, man," was an unambiguous request for counsel. Florida courts have repeatedly found similar statements to be an unequivocal invocation of the right to counsel. And, the detectives' own actions also demonstrate that they understood Wilson's statement to be an invocation of his right to counsel because they cut off further questioning and left the interrogation room shortly thereafter. The trial court correctly denied ...

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