from the Order April 20, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of
Schuylkill County Criminal Division at No(s):
BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., BOWES, J., PANELLA, J., LAZARUS, J.,
OTT, J., STABILE, J., DUBOW, J., MOULTON, J., and RANSOM, J.
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
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
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. 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).
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. Between then and October 8, 1998, Champney
had four conversations regarding the Bensinger case with
[Sgt.] Shinskie of the [PSP].
. . .
On November 25, , 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 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
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
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.
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,  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." 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 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
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
Commonwealth v. Arthur, 62 A.3d 424, 427 (Pa.Super.
2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
Invocation of the Right to Counsel
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. 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
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).
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).
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,
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.
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 ...