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Commonwealth v. Champney

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 26, 2017


          Appeal from the Order April 20, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-54-CR-0001243-1998



          MOULTON, J.

         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the April 20, 2015 order entered by the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas granting Ronald Grant Champney's motion to suppress statements made to police on May 13, 1998. The trial court concluded that Champney unambiguously invoked his right to counsel during an interview with police on December 23, 1997 and that, as a result, the statements he made the next May were obtained in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) and Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981). While we agree that Champney successfully invoked his right to counsel, we conclude that, pursuant to Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98 (2010), there was a sufficient break in custody between the invocation and the later questioning to permit the police to question Champney again after obtaining a proper waiver of his Miranda rights. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's suppression of the May 13, 1998 statements.

         This case arises from the 1992 shooting death of Roy Bensinger. A jury convicted Champney of first-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced him to death. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed his judgment of sentence in 2003. Commonwealth v. Champney, 832 A.2d 403 (Pa. 2003), cert. denied, Champney v. Pennsylvania, 542 U.S. 939 (2004).

         In 2005, Champney filed a timely Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") petition. On June 3, 2008, the PCRA court granted Champney a new trial, finding that trial counsel was ineffective for, among other things, failing to seek suppression of statements Champney made to police on May 13, 1998, and October 8, 1998.[1] On April 24, 2013, an evenly divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court's grant of a new trial. Commonwealth v. Champney, 65 A.3d 386 (Pa. 2013), cert. denied, Pennsylvania v. Champney, 134 S.Ct. 1276 (2014).

         Following remand, on February 6, 2015, Champney filed a motion to suppress statements he gave to Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP") Sergeant ("Sgt.") David Shinskie on November 25, 1997, December 23, 1997, May 13, 1998, and October 8, 1998. On March 13, 2015, the trial court held a suppression hearing, after which it set forth the following factual history regarding these statements:

On October 23, 1997, Champney was arrested and placed in Schuylkill County Prison in lieu of bail on unrelated arson charges.[2] Between then and October 8, 1998, Champney had four conversations regarding the Bensinger case with [Sgt.] Shinskie of the [PSP].
. . .
On November 25, [1997], Sgt. Shinskie accompanied [Trooper ("Tpr.") Denny] Grimm in transporting Champney from the county prison to his preliminary arraignment [on the unrelated charges at the Magisterial District Judge's ("MDJ") office.] Tpr. Grimm drove, and Sgt. Shinskie rode in the backseat with a cuffed Champney.
At the hearing [on Champney's motion to suppress], Sgt. Shinskie testified that he was seizing upon every opportunity to talk with Champney about the Bensinger case. Sgt. Shinskie allowed Champney to read the arson complaint[3] and then advised him of his Miranda rights.
[Sgt. Shinskie]'s approach to Champney was to engage in low key conversation, giving Champney information that he had received during the investigation, and inviting Champney to comment. On the way back from the MDJ office, Champney was asked to return with the officers to the police station to make a statement. Champney responded that he would have to speak to an attorney before doing so. Instead of taking him to the police station, he was returned to the prison. The Commonwealth has referenced . . . no incriminating statements during this conversation.
Champney's preliminary hearing on the arson charges occurred on December 23, 1997. He was again transported there by [Sgt.] Shinskie and [Tpr.] Grimm in the same manner as before. Sgt. Shinskie again advised Champney of his Miranda rights. After some light conversation, Champney said, "I see you caught David Blickley." Sgt. Shinskie testified that Blickley was an associate of Champney and was suspected of committing burglaries and home invasions in the Philadelphia area. Blickley's ex-girlfriend was married to Bensinger at the time he was shot.
Sgt. Shinskie responded to Champney by acknowledging that Blickley had been caught and telling Champney that Blickley was giving information regarding the homicide and Champney's possible involvement. Champney said that he knew someone would have to take the blame. Shinskie asked if Beth Bensinger was involved, and Champney responded that there was no reason for her to be involved.
On the return trip to the prison, about one hour later, Sgt. Shinskie asked Champney if he shot Bensinger. Champney responded, "Before I make any kind of statement, I think I should talk to Frank Cori." Sgt. Shinskie knew that Frank Cori was an attorney who had represented Champney. He was returned to the prison with no more conversation of note.
The next contact by [Sgt.] Shinskie with Champney occurred on May 13, 1998. Sgt. Shinskie accompanied Detective Pummer of the Lehigh County District Attorney's Office to see Champney at the prison. Detective Pummer wanted to question Champney about an arson in Allentown. They met with Champney in a prison conference room. Champney was advised of his Miranda rights and signed a waiver form.
After some questions regarding arsons in Allentown and Tremont, Sgt. Shinskie told Champney that he believed he could put together probable cause for homicide charges against Champney. In response, Champney asked what he was looking at. When [Sgt.] Shinskie replied that he did not know, because he could not make deals, Champney told him to go get Cal Shields, who was then the [Schuylkill County] District Attorney. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate Mr. Shields, [Sgt.] Shinskie returned to the conversation with Champney.
When Sgt. Shinskie noted that a .30 caliber firearm was used to kill Bensinger, Champney said "Yeah. The guns are kept in a locker in the basement of the home." [Sgt.] Shinskie told Champney that he understood the gun was destroyed. Champney responded, "That's a lie. The gun is not destroyed. I know who has the gun. And they might have sold it or have it somewhere. But that's a lie. It was not destroyed." When [Sgt.] Shinskie told Champney that Chris Reber was involved, Champney replied, "No he's not involved. He only dropped me off."
The last conversation between Sgt. Shinskie and Champney occurred on October 8, 1998. On that date, Champney was arrested in the instant case. [Sgt.] Shinskie and [Tpr.] Grimm transported Champney from the county prison to their barracks. Along the way, [Sgt.] Shinskie commented that Beth Bensinger had made some interesting statements concerning Champney's involvement in the Roy Bensinger shooting. [Sgt.] Shinskie testified that his goal was to get Champney to comment. Champney replied that she probably got immunity.
Also on the way, [Champney] was given the affidavit of probable cause to read and thereafter stated that it did not matter because he was going to die anyway. When [Sgt.] Shinskie asked what Champney meant, he said he had tuberculosis and was going to tell his attorney not to appeal so his death would come sooner. Once they arrived at the barracks, Champney was read his Miranda rights and signed the waiver form.

Trial Ct. Op., 4/20/15, at 1-5.

         On April 20, 2015, the trial court entered an order granting the motion to suppress in part. It suppressed the statements made on May 13 and October 8, 1998, [4] but denied the motion with respect to the statements made on December 23, 1997. On April 21, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a timely notice of appeal, certifying that the suppression order "will terminate or substantially handicap the prosecution."[5] See Pa.R.A.P. 311(d). On June 23, 2016, a panel of this Court affirmed the trial court. The Commonwealth filed a petition for reargument en banc, which this Court granted on September 2, 2016.

The Commonwealth raises two[6] issues on appeal:
1. Did the lower court err in granting the motion to suppress statements made to law enforcement authorities on May 13, 1998 where Champney failed to make a clear and unambiguous invocation of his right to counsel?
2. Did the lower court err in granting the motion to suppress statements made to law enforcement authorities on May 13, 1998 when there was a sufficient break in Champney's custody to end the presumption of involuntariness established in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981)?

Cmwlth.'s Br. at 4 (trial court answers omitted). Both issues address the suppression of Champney's statements on May 13, 1998. Our standard of review on such matters is well-settled:

When the Commonwealth appeals from a suppression order, this Court follows a clearly defined scope and standard of review. We consider only the evidence from the defendant's witnesses together with the evidence of the prosecution that, when read in the context of the entire record, remains uncontradicted. This Court must first determine whether the record supports the factual findings of the suppression court and then determine the reasonableness of the inferences and legal conclusions drawn from those findings. In appeals where there is no meaningful dispute of fact, as in the case sub judice, our duty is to determine whether the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts of the case.

Commonwealth v. Arthur, 62 A.3d 424, 427 (Pa.Super. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

          Invocation of the Right to Counsel

         In its first issue, the Commonwealth argues that Champney did not effectively invoke his Fifth Amendment right to counsel on December 23, 1997 and, therefore, the May 13, 1998 statements are admissible. According to the Commonwealth, Champney's statement, "Before I make any kind of statement, I think I should talk to Frank Cori, " was equivocal and ambiguous. Cmwlth.'s Br. at 23-24. The Commonwealth relies on Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994), in which the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of lower courts that the suspect's use of the phrase, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer, " was not sufficiently clear to constitute an invocation of the right to counsel.[7] Cmwlth.'s Br. at 23. The Commonwealth asserts that Champney's use of the words "think" and "should" indicated that Champney was considering whether he should discuss the matter with his attorney before making a statement, rather than actually requesting to speak with his attorney. Id. Further, the Commonwealth states "Champney's words must be considered along with the description of his body language, demeanor, and voice intonation, " id. at 25, suggesting implicitly that the trial court failed to do so.

          In Miranda, the United States Supreme Court established that an accused has the right to have counsel present during custodial interrogations under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. 384 U.S. at 474. This right to counsel is part of "a set of prophylactic measures designed to safeguard the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination." J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 269 (2011).

         In Edwards v. Arizona, the Supreme Court addressed the consequences of a suspect's invocation of the right to counsel. The Edwards court held that "when an accused has invoked his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation, " police may not conduct further interrogations "until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police." 451 U.S. at 484-85. If police conduct further interrogations outside the presence of counsel, "the suspect's statements are presumed involuntary and therefore inadmissible as substantive evidence at trial, even where the suspect executes a waiver and his statements would be considered voluntary under traditional standards." McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 177 (1991).

         To trigger these protections, a defendant's request for counsel must be sufficiently clear "that a reasonable police officer would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney." Davis, 512 U.S. at 459. In Davis, police officers were investigating a murder that occurred after the victim lost a pool-game bet and refused to pay. Id. at 454. Naval criminal investigators focused on Davis when they discovered that he had been at the bar on the evening in question and owned a pool cue that was stained with blood. Id. Davis was brought in for questioning, provided his rights, [8] and waived his rights to remain silent and to counsel. Id. at 454-55. During the interview, Davis said, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer." Id. at 455. In response, the criminal investigator reminded him of his right to counsel and asked Davis to clarify whether he wanted a lawyer. Id. Davis responded that he was not asking for a lawyer and did not want one. Id. However, one hour later, Davis said, "I think I want a lawyer before I say anything else, " at which point investigators ended the interrogation. Id.

         The Davis Court declined to disturb the conclusion of the lower courts that Davis's "maybe" statement was insufficiently clear to invoke his right to counsel. Id. at 462. The Court rejected the argument that an equivocal or ambiguous reference to counsel requires the police to stop questioning a suspect:

We decline petitioner's invitation to extend Edwards and require law enforcement officers to cease questioning immediately upon the making of an ambiguous or equivocal reference to an attorney. The rationale underlying Edwards is that the police must respect a suspect's wishes regarding his right to have an attorney present during custodial interrogation. But when the officers conducting the questioning reasonably do not know whether or not the suspect wants a lawyer, a rule requiring the immediate cessation of questioning "would transform the Miranda safeguards into wholly irrational obstacles to legitimate police investigative activity, " Michigan v. Mosley, 423 U.S. 96, 102 . . . (1975), because it would needlessly prevent the police from questioning a suspect in the absence of counsel even ...

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