Question: Must peace officers ask clarifying questions when a suspect hedges on whether he wants an attorney present for questioning?
Quick answer: No. If the suspect is ambiguous in requesting an attorney, officers are not constitutionally required to further clarify the suspect’s request and do not have to end questioning.
Facts: Police recovered a gun that defendant Deandre Hampton dumped during a foot chase, leading to felon in possession of a firearm charges. Two officers asked to question Hampton in jail about the charge. Hampton agreed to sign a Miranda waiver form and began giving a statement when he suddenly changed his mind and requested an attorney. The officers ended the interview and called for Hampton to be taken back to his cell. Once the jail deputy arrived, though, Hampton again changed his mind. The officers then chose to record the rest of their conversation with Hampton. They renewed his Miranda warnings and again asked if he wanted counsel present. He responded, “Yeah, I do, but …,” so the officers explained that they couldn’t talk to him if he wanted an attorney. Hampton paused for five seconds before asking how an attorney’s presence would change anything. The officers would not answer his question. Instead, they insisted he either request an attorney and stop the questioning or continue talking with them without an attorney. Hampton continued to hedge on whether he wanted an attorney, even trying to talk about the facts of his charge. But the officers repeatedly insisted that he clarify his choice. Finally, Hampton unequivocally told them, “No, I don’t want no attorney for right now” and gave a statement.
Why the case is important: The court of appeals found no constitutional violation because, after Hampton reinitiated the police interview, he never again made an unambiguous request for counsel. For a suspect to invoke his Miranda rights, the request for an attorney must be unequivocal. At most, Hampton only indicated that he might want counsel present: “Yeah, I do but … I think, I, I felt like [there] should have been an attorney here because that’s what I asked for.” Those indecisive comments did not require the officers to end their questioning. Also, Hampton had already signed a written Miranda waiver, unambiguously requested an attorney, but then re-commenced the interview on his own. He knew how to make an explicit request for counsel. And the officers’ clarification of Hampton’s request, although encouraged, is not required by the Constitution.
Keep in mind: If a suspect unambiguously requests counsel, you must provide counsel or stop questioning. However, if the suspect is ambiguous or unsure, you aren’t in danger of violating Miranda.
to read the entire opinion.