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Commonwealth v. Cooley

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 15, 2015


Argued October 8, 2014

Appeal from the Superior Court order dated August 7, 2013 at No. 1588 MDA 2012 which Affirmed the judgment of sentence of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, dated July 16, 2012 at No. CP-06-CR-0003517-2011. Trial Court Judge: Thomas G. Parisi, Judge. Intermediate Court Judges: Kate Ford Elliott, President Judge Emeritus, Jack A. Panella, Judge, William Platt, Judge.

For Nathan Cooley, III, APPELLANT: Carolyn Ann Castagna, Esq., Levin & Zeiger, L.L.P., Brian J. Zeiger, Esq., Levin & Zeiger, L.L.P.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, APPELLEE: John T. Adams, Esq., Christopher Baer Connard, Esq., Berks County District Attorney's Office, Alisa Rebecca Hobart, Esq., Berks County District Attorney's Office, Melissa Joy Noyes, Esq., Berks County District Attorney's Office.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. MR. JUSTICE EAKIN. Mr. Chief Justice Saylor, Mr. Justice Baer and Madame Justice Todd join the opinion. Mr. Justice Stevens files a dissenting opinion.


Page 371


This Court granted review to consider whether appellant was subject to custodial interrogation during an encounter with parole agents, such that their failure to issue Miranda[1] warnings violated his Fifth Amendment rights. The courts below admitted appellant's statements at trial, concluding appellant was not in custody for Fifth Amendment purposes and thus not entitled to Miranda warnings. We conclude appellant's interaction with parole agents included custodial interrogation, making admission of the statements error, which was not harmless. Thus, we are constrained to vacate appellant's convictions and remand for a new trial.

On June 30, 2011, while appellant was on parole following a drug conviction, his parole

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agent, Agent McCartin, received a voicemail from the father of appellant's fiancé e, who stated appellant possessed and had been discharging firearms, and may have been selling drugs at his home. Agent McCartin testified he found the voicemail reliable because the caller identified himself and his relationship to appellant, and knew of appellant's recent approved vacation to Virginia.

On July 6, 2011, appellant went to the parole office to meet with Agent McCartin. Upon appellant's arrival, Agent McCartin handcuffed him and searched him for weapons, finding none. Agent McCartin informed appellant that he and other agents were going to search his home for firearms and drugs based on a " course of action[.]" N.T. Trial, 5/10/12, at 96-97. He asked appellant if contraband would be found in his home; appellant became nervous and said he was unsure what agents would discover. Another parole officer, Agent Heidlebaugh, asked him whether firearms would be found in his home; appellant admitted a gun was in a drawer under the living-room couch. The agents transported appellant, still in handcuffs, to his home.

Four parole agents, including McCartin and Heidlebaugh, conducted the search. They recovered a .40 caliber handgun from the drawer identified by appellant and an empty .22 caliber handgun case from appellant's bedroom. They also seized $3,200, one pound of marijuana, and plastic baggies. When confronted with the drugs, appellant admitted they were his. After completing the search, the agents asked where his vehicle was; appellant gave a location, but when the agents drove there, his vehicle was not there. Back at the parole office, agents saw a vehicle and asked appellant if it was his; he confirmed it was. The agents asked appellant whether he had a firearm in the vehicle; he admitted there was one under the passenger seat. The agents took his keys, entered the car, and seized a .22 caliber handgun. From the time of his arrival at the parole office, during the search of his home, and until he returned to the office with the agents, appellant remained in handcuffs and was never given Miranda warnings.

Appellant was charged with two counts each of persons not to possess firearms, 18 Pa.C.S. § 6106(a)(1), and firearms not to be carried without a license,[2] id., § 6106(a)(1), and one count each of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(30), and possession of marijuana, id., § 780-113(a)(31)(i). Appellant filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking to suppress the statements made to the parole agents, which the suppression court denied.[3] A jury convicted appellant on all counts; he was sentenced to five to ten years imprisonment followed by seven years' probation. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion, which was denied. He appealed, claiming his statements to the parole agents should have been suppressed because he was never given Miranda warnings.

In its Rule 1925(a) opinion, the trial court held Miranda warnings were not required because appellant was neither in custody nor interrogated.[4] The court determined that appellant was detained at

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the parole office based on suspected parole violations, but was not subject to an arrest or its functional equivalent. The court primarily relied on 61 Pa.C.S. § 6153(d)(5),[5] which allows a parole agent to detain a parolee who is present during a property search. The court noted appellant " was detained for the agents' safety before the subject of the informant's tip has been broached." Trial Court Opinion, 12/3/12, at 11. It concluded, " According to established safety protocols, [appellant] remained detained while the parole agents conducted the approved residential search. This detention and questioning by parole agents pursuant to their statutorily defined authority is not the functional equivalent of an arrest that would require the agents to administer Miranda warnings[.]" Id., at 11-12.

The Superior Court affirmed, holding Miranda warnings were not required during questioning by the parole agents because appellant's statements were merely part of a parole interview rather than a custodial interrogation. Commonwealth v. Cooley, No. 1588 MDA 2012, unpublished memorandum at 12, (Pa. Super. filed August 7, 2013). The court stated Miranda warnings are only required when there is custodial interrogation, which is defined as " 'questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.'" Id., at 11 (quoting Miranda, at 444). It noted custody is equivalent to " a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." Id. (citation omitted). The court reviewed various factors and found the mere fact appellant was handcuffed was insufficient to show he was arrested.

The court also determined there was no custodial interrogation because appellant " was not taken to an unfamiliar or coercive environment, there was no use of force or threat of force, and the detention did not last for more than a few hours." It concluded appellant's interactions with the parole agents at the office merely constituted a parole interview, during which Miranda warnings are not usually required. It also concluded detention in conformity with § 6153(d)(5) was not the functional equivalent of an arrest. Thus, the court held the suppression court did not err in admitting appellant's statements regarding the firearms and drugs. .

We granted allocatur to determine " [w]hether there was custodial interrogation, such that the failure to issue Miranda warnings violated [appellant]'s Fifth Amendment rights, requiring suppression of statements made." Commonwealth v. Cooley, 624 Pa. 403, 86 A.3d 230 (Pa. 2014) (per curiam). In reviewing a ruling on a suppression motion, our standard of review is well settled: We are bound by the suppression court's factual findings if supported by the record; however, we review the suppression court's legal rulings de novo. Commonwealth v. James, 620 Pa. 465, 69 A.3d 180, 186 (Pa. 2013) (quoting Commonwealth v. Briggs, 608 Pa. 430, 12 A.3d 291, 320-21 (Pa. 2011)).

Page 374

Appellant contends a parole agent must issue Miranda warnings to a parolee when he is in custody and questioned about new crimes.[6] He asserts his status as a parolee does not limit his Fifth Amendment rights, and he retained such rights throughout. Appellant asserts the use of restraints, coupled with the length of detention and the accusations of new crimes, further establishes he was in custody. He argues the agents' acts constituted custodial interrogation, and therefore he was entitled to Miranda warnings at the parole office, his home, and in the agents' vehicle.

Appellant argues both the Superior Court and the trial court improperly relied on United States v. Randolph, 210 F.Supp.2d 586 (E.D. Pa. 2002), for the proposition that " [p]arole agents in any event may without Miranda warnings question parolees." Id., at 589 n.3. Appellant notes Randolph is not binding on this Court and claims the statement relied on by the courts is dictum, as that case involved the Fourth Amendment, not the Fifth Amendment. See id., at 589 & n.3 (quoting Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 435 n.7, 104 S.Ct. 1136, 79 L.Ed.2d 409 (1984)). Alternatively, appellant alleges Randolph actually supports the notion that Miranda warnings are required when a parolee is interrogated about new crimes.[7]

Appellant contends Commonwealth v. Knoble, 615 Pa. 285, 42 A.3d 976 (Pa. 2012), indicated a probationer may invoke Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions about new crimes. See id., at 981-82. He asserts we opined in Knoble that statements made to probation or parole agents concerning new crimes must be suppressed if such statements were compelled by threat of probation or parole revocation. Noting we ultimately held Knoble was not in custody, appellant asserts there is custody in this case.

Appellant also claims the Superior Court erred in relying on 61 Pa.C.S. ยง 6153(d)(5). He asserts that section only involves the Fourth Amendment, and lawfulness of detaining a parolee during a home search is immaterial to a Miranda analysis. Lawfulness of custody neither determines the constitutionality of interrogation nor the need to administer Miranda warnings. Appellant points out that police arrived during the search but never spoke to him, though they filed the criminal charges; he posits that had he been ...

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