Did Detectives Dodge a Bullet? When Giving Miranda Rights in English and Spanish, Do it By the Book


Miranda, Constitutional Advisal of Rights, Voluntariness and the Vienna Convention:

    • Advisal of an in-custody suspect’s Miranda rights must include the right to the assistance of an attorney before and during questioning.
    • Advisal of a Mexican citizen’s rights under the Vienna Convention is a factor to consider in determining the voluntariness of a suspect’s admissions.
    • The portion of a Miranda admonishment that an in-custody suspect is entitled to the assistance of an attorney must include the fact that this right includes before and during questioning.
    • A 14-hour break in questioning does not generally require that an in-custody suspect be readvised of his Miranda rights before the second interview so long as he was properly advised the first time and still has his rights in mind.
    • Whether an in-custody suspect’s admissions were voluntary depends upon the circumstances, including whether he (as a citizen of Mexico) was also advised of his consular rights as required by the Vienna Convention.

Case Facts
Between September, 1999, and May, 2000, defendant Victor M. Miranda-Guerrero attacked several women in the Southern California city of Huntington Beach and was convicted of five charges: kidnapping to commit rape, murder, attempted carjacking, assault with intent to commit rape and receiving stolen property:

#1: It started with the defendant kidnapping Jamie H. in the early morning hours of September 12, 1999, the victim accosted as she slept in her car. After the defendant forced his way into her car while claiming he had a gun, he drove Jamie to a residential area, where he attempted to rape her. Jamie was able to escape with the assistance of someone driving by. During the assault, she suffered abrasions on her thigh, elbow and buttocks, and a clump of her hair was pulled out. Blood on her boots was later matched to the defendant by DNA.

#2: A month and a half later, in the early morning hours of November 27, the defendant accosted Bridgett Ballas as she walked down a dark residential street. Ballas had been out drinking with friends when she started to walk home. She made it to within a tenth of a mile of her home when the defendant assaulted her, leaving her unconscious and lying in the street between two parked cars. Later discovered by neighbors, she was found with her pants pulled down and her shirt pulled up. She sustained a serious head injury, believed to be the result of blunt-force trauma from more than one blow. Ballas died two days later.

#3: On May 25, 2000, Heidi D. was out partying with three friends, after which they returned to her car in a Hunting Beach parking garage. They were met there by the drunken defendant, who, after incoherently talking with them for a few minutes, grabbed the car keys away from Heidi. Heidi and her three friends physically fought with the defendant as he forced his way into Heidi’s car. At one point, the defendant temporarily pulled one of the women into the car with him as all four unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve the keys. They were all eventually able to escape, running to a bar to get help. When they returned to the parking garage, they found the car still there and the defendant gone.

#4: About an hour later that same night, the defendant accosted Deena L. as she walked home after an evening of drinking with friends at a nearby Huntington Beach bar. Noticing that someone was following her, she attempted to return to a more populated area when the defendant ran up to her and grabbed her hair with one hand while covering her mouth with the other. As he pushed her onto the sidewalk, she bit his fingers in a vain attempt to escape. Deena almost lost consciousness as the defendant slammed her head against a brick planter as many as six times. Ultimately, she was able to escape his grasp and hit him, causing him to flee. Deena was able to get to a coffee shop where she found a Huntington Beach police officer. Checking the area with the officer, she spotted the defendant in an alley and he was arrested. DNA collected from under her fingernails and from her teeth matched the defendant’s and supported her identification of him as her attacker.

#5: The defendant also was charged with receiving stolen property after a cellphone was found in his backpack, a device that had been stolen in a September, 1999, vehicle burglary.

Interviews and Admonitions Raise Multiple Issues on Appeal

Taken to the police station, the defendant was questioned by two Huntington Beach Police detectives over the next four days in three separate interviews, the details of which require some explaining:

First Interview

Detectives first questioned the defendant about two hours after his arrest on morning of May 26, 2000. In this interview, one detective spoke to the defendant primarily in Spanish. This included, at least initially, the somewhat involved and confusing procedure of providing defendant with a Miranda advisal, step by step, first in English and then in Spanish. After advising the defendant in both Spanish and English that he had the right to remain silent, and receiving an affirmative reply (“Of course”) when asked if he understood that right, the detective then advised the defendant (in English only) that anything he said may be used against him in court.

The defendant showed some confusion when asked if he understood this right, to which he responded (in Spanish) with a question: If, if I was in court before?” Apparently not sure what this meant, the detective responded merely by readvising the defendant that anything he said may be used against him in court, but this time in Spanish, to which defendant responded – without being asked again whether he understood this right – with a simple “Yeah.”

Reminding the defendant that they were going to use an English-first/Spanish-second procedure, the detective then violated his own rule by going through all the rights in Spanish before repeating them in English, and then repeating them all again in a haphazard listing of the rights in both languages, interspersing them with additional brief explanations (e.g., “Because here in the United States you have rights.”) Of significance, when explaining to the defendant his rights in Spanish, the detective told him he had “a right to an attorney,” without explaining that that right applied to both “before and during” his questioning.

Asked in the end if he understood his rights, the defendant responded with: “Mm hm.” Asked if that meant “si or no,” defendant said: “Yeah.” When then asked if he wanted to talk about the charges, defendant said: “Well yes, bu __.”

Before the questioning began, there was no mention of the defendant’s additional rights under the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (see below). From here, a two-hour interrogation ensued, during which defendant denied any wrongdoing.

Second Interview

Shortly after midnight on May 27, the defendant was woken up and interviewed a second time, a session that lasted some seven hours. Before starting the questioning, the detective asked the defendant in “deficient Spanish” (the Court’s words): “Do you remember when we talked about the rights? That you have . . . to remain silent and all that.” After the defendant responded with, “Um-hmm,” the detective then asked in Spanish if, with those rights in mind, he wanted to talk to them again. After the defendant said yes, the interview proceeded.

The defendant was questioned about the Ballas murder at this interview. He claimed at first that he had never seen Ballas. He soon changed that story to having walked with her on the night she died, but claimed she was fine when he left her. This story eventually changed to having been with her when she was injured, but that any injuries she may have sustained were the result of an accidental fall (the position he maintained at trial). He finally admitted at the end of this interview that although he didn’t remember for sure, he “maybe” had “hit her twice.”

Third Interview

A third interview was conducted two days later, on May 29. This time the detective read the defendant his rights from a card printed in Spanish. He had the defendant read the card as well. The defendant waived his rights a third time.

In what later becomes very significant, the defendant agreed, when asked, that his current understanding of his rights was the same as he understood them when he was first interviewed after his arrest four days earlier. What, if anything, came out of this last interview was not discussed in the appeal, although it was noted that various segments of each of the three videotaped interviews were played for the jury at trial.

Trial and Appeal

The defendant was subsequently charged in state court with kidnapping to commit rape (Jamie H.), murder (Ballas), attempted carjacking (Heidi D.), assault with intent to commit rape (Deena L.), and receiving stolen property (the cellphone). Although the defendant pleaded not guilty to all counts, the defense contested only the murder and assault allegations at trial.

Pretrial, the defendant’s motion to suppress statements he made to the detectives was denied. The jury was therefore allowed to view selected segments of the videotapes of the defendant’s three interviews, including his admission to having hit Ballas “maybe…twice.” The jury convicted him of five of six charges, hanging only on a simple assault charge stemming from the Heidi D. incident. Jurors found true a special circumstance that the murder occurred during the attempted commission of rape. Sentenced to death, the defendant appealed