People v. Elizalde

The Recorder

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C.A. 1st
A132071

The First Appellate District affirmed judgments of conviction. The court held in the published portion of its opinion that an arrestee’s admission of gang affiliation during routine administrative questioning prior to booking, but in the absence of a Miranda warning, could not be used against him at trial.

Jose Mota was arrested after he was implicated in certain gang-related murders that occurred over a four-month period. Mota was taken to a Contra Costa County detention facility and placed into a separate room by the intake deputies. When Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Rector first spoke with Mota, Mota volunteered that he was being falsely implicated by another criminal. Rector asked if Mota wanted to talk to a police detective. Mota said yes, but after first talking with his lawyer.

Although it was standard procedure to ask arrestees about their gang affiliation in order to segregate them from rival gang members, Rector already knew that Mota was involved in a gang based on earlier statements Mota had made to another deputy. Rector filled out a summary of his conversation with Mota for assistance in the local police department’s investigation.

Deputy Bryan Zaiser, who worked in the facility’s classification unit, next interviewed Mota because Mota appeared to be gang affiliated. Zaiser did not read Miranda warnings to Mota or otherwise advise him that he could decline to answer the questions. According to Zaiser, Mota identified himself as affiliated with the Sureño street gang.

Mota was charged with multiple counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, participating in a criminal street gang, and related crimes. Before trial, he moved to suppress his admission of gang membership because he was not provided a Miranda warning before deputies obtained information about his gang affiliation, which was potentially incriminating information. The government responded that none of the deputies knew Mota had been charged with gang-related crimes, but instead asked about his gang affiliation as part of a custodial interrogation for which no Miranda warnings were required.

The trial court admitted the evidence, concluding that the information was gathered to ensure the safety of inmates and staff, and that Zaiser had no actual intent to gather incriminating information and used no coercive tactics to obtain information from Mota.

The jury found Mota guilty of three homicides and the street gang conspiracy charge. It also found true street gang enhancements as to the homicides.

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that the trial court committed erred in denying Mota’s motion to suppress the statements he made during his classification interview. The court further held the error was not prejudicial

A “custodial interrogation” includes any words or actions by police, other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody, that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect. The Supreme Court has recognized a “routine booking question” exception to Miranda, however. The exception applies to questions asked to secure basic, neutral information, such as biographical information necessary for booking or pretrial services. For its part, the California Supreme Court has likewise recognized such an exception, declaring that evidence obtained in response to booking questions is limited to the purposes for which it was elicited.

The California Supreme Court also has approved admission of incriminating statements volunteered by a defendant which fell under the booking exception to Miranda, observing that the definition of interrogation could encompass only words or actions by police that they should have known were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. However, an officer’s subjective intent is merely one factor, and not a determinative one, in determining whether a particular question falls within the booking exception. Thus, even if a question was not intended to evoke an incriminating response, if it was a question the officer should have reasonably expected to evoke such a response it would fall outside the booking exception.

Here, the court admonished, the deputy who asked Mota whether he belonged to a gang should have known that the question was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. The California Penal Code has long imposed criminal penalties for participation in a criminal street gang. It was also unlikely that the deputy would be unaware of the possibility that Mota might be a gang member and thus particularly likely to give an incriminating response to this question, the court said. In addition, the question did not seek “routine biographical information” for purposes of the Miranda booking exception, even if it were characterized as “administrative,” but rather sought information that could carry penal consequences.

The court emphasized that it was not necessary that a question be designed to elicit incriminatory admissions for it to fall outside the routine booking exception. It can still fall outside the exception where an officer should have known that a particular question was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.

The court noted, too, that Mota’s options were to admit to gang membership and incriminate himself, or lie or refuse to respond and risk being housed with rival gang inmates. A defendant should not be required to choose between offering incriminating information or risking serious injury while in custody.

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