Young Defendant in New York Successfully Overturns Unfavorable Trial Court Decision

Last month, a New York appellate court decided a case that overturned a young defendant’s murder conviction after trial and suppressed statements that were made to his father and recorded by the police in the police station. Originally, the defendant had been found guilty of several violent crimes, including murder in the second degree. After the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating statements, the defendant appealed; on appeal, the higher court unanimously agreed that the trial court’s decision should be reversed.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant was 15 years old when he was charged with murder, criminal possession of a weapon, and attempted robbery. Officers brought the defendant to the station upon his arrest, at which point they complied with their legal obligation to call one of the defendant’s parents or guardians. The defendant’s father immediately came to the station and informed the officers that they wanted to speak with an attorney before submitting to an interview.

At that point, the officers left the interview room, leaving the defendant and his father alone with a video camera recording the conversation. The defendant’s face collapsed into his hands, and he began speaking in a distressed tone to his father. His father warned him to stop talking and reminded his son about the video.  However, the defendant continued and attempted to make his conversation inaudible by covering his mouth and speaking in hushed tones.  Later the defendant discovered that their conversation had been recorded and that the State wanted to use the recording as evidence at trial.  Indeed much of the video was inaudible but what was audible was played for the jury.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the conversation, which the trial court denied. The case went to trial, and the defendant was found guilty. Promptly, the defendant appealed.

The Decision

On appeal, the defendant argued that he had a constitutional right to privacy that was invaded when the State tried to admit his conversation into evidence. As a young person, he depended on his father for guidance, and it would dissuade kids from talking to their parents if they thought these conversations could be later used against them.

The court of appeals looked at the circumstances and ultimately agreed with the defendant. The court noted that the defendant’s conversation with his father was muffled and that the jury could only understand a few words of what was said – those words, however, were still incriminating and made jury members more likely to think the defendant committed the crime. According to the court, if it were to allow those statements to be admitted, the defendant would essentially be paying a price for seeking his father’s advice. Although no parent-child privilege exists in the same way that an attorney-client or spousal privilege exists, the Court noted that in some circumstances it it important to recognized a parent-child privilege.  The defendant had a right to speak privately with his parent, and he reasonably did not know there was a recording device in the room.

Given these facts, the court reversed the trial court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss. The defendant’s convictions were vacated so that he could get an entirely new trial, this time, without the recording being admitted.

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