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State of Vermont v. Hieu Tran

December 21, 2012


On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Criminal Division May Term, 2012 Linda Levitt, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skoglund, J.

State v. Tran (2011-341)

2012 VT 104

Supreme Court

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ.

¶ 1. This interlocutory appeal raises the question of whether defendant Hieu Tran was in police custody when two detectives questioned him in a police cruiser for one hour as part of an investigation into an assault and attempted robbery. The trial court concluded that the interview was a custodial interrogation conducted without the warnings guaranteed by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and granted defendant's motion to suppress. On appeal, the State argues that no warnings were necessary because defendant voluntarily spoke with detectives and was not in custody during the interview. We affirm.

¶ 2. Defendant was charged with assault and attempted robbery in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 608(a). Defendant filed a motion to suppress statements he made to police during an interview in March 2011. Defendant claimed that the statements were made in violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution and Chapter I, Article 10 of the Vermont Constitution because police conducted a custodial interrogation without providing defendant with the necessary Miranda warnings. The court held a hearing on the motion in August 2011. At the hearing, the only witness was one of the police detectives who interviewed defendant. In addition, a recording and transcript of the police interview were admitted.

¶ 3. At the suppression hearing, the detective described the following facts concerning the investigation and the challenged interview. In the early afternoon of March 23, two police detectives drove in an unmarked police car to defendant's residence to question him about his possible involvement in an assault and robbery that had occurred a couple of days earlier.

¶ 4. Prior to the interview, police had already compiled information regarding the assault and robbery from the victim, the victim's friend who was present at the scene, and a person in the neighborhood who witnessed the altercation. The investigation started when police were dispatched to an emergency room where a man was being treated for an assault, which required stitches on his hand. The information from the man led detectives to the place where the incident occurred. After speaking with a witness at the scene and the injured man's friend, police understood that the assault occurred during a drug transaction. Two perpetrators were involved, and one carried a gun. The victim's friend identified defendant as the suspect without a gun. Police recovered a baseball cap from the scene that reportedly belonged to defendant.

¶ 5. When the detectives arrived at defendant's residence, defendant's mother indicated that he was not at home and she was going to pick him up. Police followed her car when she left to get defendant. When defendant arrived back at home, police again went to the door and defendant came out onto the porch. Police asked defendant to meet in their car. The detective testified that he decided to conduct the interview in the police car to be more comfortable and to afford some privacy from defendant's mother and brother, who were at home. Defendant entered the front passenger seat. The officer could not remember if defendant or the other detective had shut the front door. The door remained unlocked during the interview. The detective testified he did not tell defendant that he was not free to leave, but on cross-examination agreed he did not tell defendant that he was free to leave. One detective sat in the driver's seat, and the other sat in the back seat. Both questioned defendant.

¶ 6. At the beginning of the interview, the detectives told defendant that they had spoken to the victim and other witnesses, that they knew something had happened and there was a fight, and that they wanted defendant to have a chance to explain his side of the story. The detectives asked defendant how the drug deal was set up. Defendant explained that the victim had initiated it by calling him. The detectives told defendant that they "already have the answers to some questions" and "know how it went down and where it went down and all of that stuff." In response to questions about the gun, defendant stated that the gun was fake and plastic. At one point, one detective directed defendant not to play with his cell phone during the interview. The detectives explained to defendant that he could be charged with armed robbery even if he was not holding the gun because he was there and part of the deal. Defendant made little response to the questioning, stating that he did not have anything to say, and did not know or remember what happened. At one point, he admitted that he was there, and again stated the gun was not real. He admitted he lost his hat at the scene.

¶ 7. The detective testified that prior to the interview, he believed there was probable cause to arrest defendant. The interview was recorded and lasted for about one hour. At the end of the interview, defendant was arrested.

¶ 8. The court made brief oral findings on the record. The court found that the circumstances of the questioning created a police-dominated atmosphere. The court found several factors demonstrated that defendant was in custody at the time of the interview and not free to leave. First, the court found it significant that prior to the interview, police had enough information to arrest defendant and were, in fact, planning to arrest defendant at the close of the interview. The court emphasized that defendant would not have felt free to leave insofar as he was young, and had been told by police that they had information linking him to the assault and robbery. Finally, the court pointed to the physical conditions of the interrogation: two officers questioning defendant in a small space--a police car--for one hour.

¶ 9. The court subsequently denied the State's motion to reconsider the suppression decision. The State then moved for permission to appeal, asserting that several statements made during the interview were substantial proof of a material fact relevant to the proceeding. See 13 V.S.A. § 7403(c), (d) (allowing state to appeal from granting of motion to suppress in felony case as long as state certifies that suppressed evidence is substantial proof of relevant material fact or loss of evidence would seriously impede proceeding); V.R.A.P. 5(b)(1). According to the State, these facts included defendant's statements that he set up the drug deal, saw the gun that was used during the assault and robbery, was present at the scene, and lost his hat at the place where the assault and robbery took place. The trial court granted the motion, and this Court accepted the State's appeal.

¶ 10. On appeal, the State argues that the court's order was error because the court erroneously considered the detective's subjective belief in defendant's guilt and defendant's subjective characteristics like his age. The State argues there was no custody because a reasonable person would have felt free to leave. Our review of the granting of a motion to suppress involves a two-step analysis. State v. Lawrence, 2003 VT 68, ¶ 8, 175 Vt. 600, 834 A.2d 10 (mem.). We defer to the trial court's factual findings and will affirm them unless clearly erroneous. Id. The underlying legal issue, such as whether there was a custodial interrogation, is a legal question and our review "is plenary and nondeferential." State v. Sole, 2009 VT 24, ¶ 17, 185 Vt. 504, 974 A.2d 587; see Thompson v. Keohane, ...

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