Purging the Taint from a Confession

When evidence is obtained in violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, the exclusionary rule has traditionally barred from trial both physical and verbal evidence stemming from the violation, including confessions that result from an illegal arrest. See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 485 (1963). However, courts also recognize that individuals may decide to confess as an act of free will, unaffected by any initial illegality. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603 (1975). The admissibility of a confession after a violation of Fourth Amendment rights is determined on a case-by-case basis, and in Minnesota the following factors are considered in assessing whether the confession may be separated from the illegality:

(1) Whether Miranda warnings were given; (2) The temporal proximity of the arrest and the confession; (3) The presence of any intervening circumstances; (4) The purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct; (5) The treatment of defendant while confined; (6) His relationship with his interrogators; and (7) His freedom of communication with persons other than law-enforcement officers.

State v. Weekes (Weekes II), 268 N.W.2d 705, 708-09 (Minn. 1978).

The question to be answered through analysis of the above factors is whether the statement was given independently of the primary illegality, such that the connection between the illegal arrest and the confession is sufficiently tenuous to purge the taint. Id. A statement’s admissibility is to be determined by whether it is sufficiently an act of free will to purge the taint from the initial invasion, in light of the policies served by the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule. State v. Weekes (Weekes I), 250 N.W.2d 590, 594 (Minn. 1977).

A case recently decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court, State v. McDonald-Richards, A11-1449 (Minn. January 23, 2013), involved a Fourth Amendment violation when officers arrested McDonald-Richards without probable cause or any other lawful basis for the detention. Because the violation of McDonald-Richards’ rights was categorized as “flagrant,” the intervening Miranda right advisory and the two hours between her arrest and her statement to police were not sufficient to separate her statement from her illegal arrest. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that McDonald-Richards’ statement to police that resulted from her initial illegal arrest should have been excluded at trial.  However, because the statement was used only for impeachment purposes, and because other evidence was also available to call the defendant’s credibility into question, the court found the error of admitting McDonald-Richards’ first statement to be harmless, and declined to reverse her conviction for aiding and abetting first-degree murder.

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