The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Dyer v. Hornbeck, decided last week demonstrates the importance of attempting to win a criminal case in the trial court or on direct appeal instead of relying on a writ of habeas corpus in Federal Court. The rules on habeas are set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Where an issue has been decided by a state court, on its merits, a Federal Court cannot grant a writ of habeas corpus unless the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or unless the state court decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” This creates an extremely high hurdle that a defendent must surmount in order to obtain relief in a Federal habeas appeal.
The issue before the Ninth Circuit was whether the trial court wrongly denied Stacy Dyer’s motion to suppress a statement given to the police on the grounds that she was not read her Miranda rights. Miranda warnings must be given whenever a person is interrogated while the person is in custody. In this case the question was whether or not Stacy Dyer was in custody at the time that she was interrogated by Detective Chapman. As part of a murder investigation, a search warrant was served at Dyer’s residence. While she was not home, when the officers initiated the search, she arrived shortly thereafter. The officers locked her in the back of a sheriff’s car while they continued the search. Approximately a half hour later, Detective Chapman asked her if she would voluntarily come to the Sheriff’s station and answer some questions. She agreed. At the beginning of the questioning she was told that she was not under arrest and she was free to leave. Twice during the early morning questioning she was allowed to get up, unguarded and allowed to use the restroom. After the 3 hour and 45 minute interview she was arrested.
Judge Milan D. Smith in a concurring opinion wrote, ” [W]ere I sitting on direct appeal in the place of one those justices, I would have decided the custody issue differently. Because the habeas appeal before us is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, however, I am bound by controlling law to concur in the judgment denying Dyer’s petition for relief.” He pointed out that the state court found three reasons to hold that Dyer was not in custody at the time that she answered Inspector Chapman’s questions at the sheriff’s station. She agreed to go to the sheriff’s station to answer question. She was allowed to take unaccompanied bathroom breaks and she was told that she was not under arrest at the beginning of the conversation. But Smith questions the quality of her consent. At the time of the consent she was locked in the back of a police car and could well have thought she was in custody. Her only choice was to continue sitting in the back of the car waiting to be arrested or accompany Chapman to the Sheriff’s station. It was not much of a choice.While she was allowed to go to the bathroom unaccompanied and theoretically could have walked out the nearby door, there is no evidence that she new where the door was located and she had no place to go.It was the middle of the night and she was a half hour away from home with no transportation to get home. As to being told that she was not under arrest, several times during the early morning questioning she was told that the officers had evidence that she committed the murder and she could easily have expected to be arrested.
Even though Judge Smith personally felt that Dyer was entitled to Miranda warnings and without such her answers to Chapman’s questions should be excluded he agreed with the majority that her appeal should be denied because the court must use a “highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Thus if any trial court judge could have ruled against Dyer the Court of Appeals must rule against her.