In a case involving an accused double-murderer, Maryland’s top court will consider how much deference appellate courts owe to a judge’s finding that evidence was collected in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights.
The Court of Appeals has agreed to review a lower-court decision that police were not obligated to inform Terrance J. Brown of his right to remain silent before questioning him because he was not in custody at the time. The Court of Special Appeals’ decision in August would permit Brown’s incriminating statement that he was at the scene of the two Cambridge slayings to be introduced at his trial.
Appealing that decision to the high court, Brown argues through counsel that the Court of Special Appeals should have deferred to the trial judge’s ruling that Brown was in fact in police custody and, because the officers did not advise him of his rights, the statement cannot be introduced at trial.
Specifically, Assistant Public Defender Katherine P. Rasin is urging the high court to adopt the “supplemental rule of interpretation,” a legal doctrine of appellate-court deference that is yet to be considered by the high court but frequently cited by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals.
The doctrine holds that deference should be given to a judge’s decision on suppressing evidence even when the facts supporting that decision are ambiguous or not explicitly explained by the judge in his or her ruling, Rasin wrote in the petition.
“The reviewing court must affirm the lower court’s suppression ruling unless no version of the facts adduced at the hearing, even with all inferences and credibility determinations being made in the prevailing party’s favor, could not have supported the ruling,” Rasin wrote. “Where, as here, the evidence from the suppression motion amply supports the lower court’s custody finding, the Court of Special Appeals shirked its responsibility to apply these [tenets] of appellate review in reversing.”
But Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said the Court of Special Appeals correctly reviewed the judge’s decision on the admissibility of the evidence based on an “ordinary application of well-settled law” and found it to be incorrect.
“There is nothing new or novel …about the ‘supplemental rule of interpretation,’ and it does not make this otherwise unremarkable case worthy of further review,” Frosh wrote in his unsuccessful request that the court not consider Brown’s appeal. “At bottom, the ‘supplemental rule of interpretation’ is simply a review of the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below. And that is what the Court of Special Appeals did here.”
Assistant Attorney General Carrie J. Williams co-signed Frosh’s response to Rasin’s petition.
Rasin, in her petition for review, said the Court of Special Appeals failed to give proper deference to Dorchester County Circuit Court Judge Brett W. Wilson’s interpretation of evidence that strongly indicated the officers were holding Brown in custody when he said he was heading to Cross Street, the site of the October 2014 shooting deaths of LeRon Todd and Ashley Cornish.
That evidence included an armed police officer telling Brown, while he was being treated for a gunshot wound, that his car had been towed. The officer then drove Brown to the police station, his head bandaged and still wearing hospital garb, Rasin said.
Brown “was never told that he was free to leave, he was delivered to a door to the police station that leads directly to an interrogation room with two-way glass rather than through the front door of the station, he was interrogated with an accusatory tone from the outset that leaves no doubt that the detective viewed him as a suspect, and he was arrested at the conclusion of the interrogation,” Rasin wrote in the petition.
Obligated to defer?
This version of the facts, which presumably prompted Wilson to grant the suppression motion, was markedly different from the Court of Special Appeals’ finding in August that Brown was not in custody.
The police officer “did not advise [Brown] that he was ‘free to go,’ but he made clear to [Brown] that he was not under arrest,” the Court of Special Appeals held in its unreported opinion.
Brown “was not handcuffed or otherwise physically restrained, but he was wearing a hospital shirt and hospital pants” when he was placed in the interrogation room where he was interviewed by a single, unarmed officer, the court added.
Rasin, however, stated the appellate court was obligated to defer to the judge’s conclusion.
“If this Court [of Appeals] adopts the supplemental rule of interpretation, the intermediate appellate court’s reversal of the motions court cannot be justified,” Rasin wrote. “Guidance is clearly needed from this court with regard to how to apply the supplemental rule of interpretation set forth in several opinions of the Court of Special Appeals but ignored in the present case.”
The high court is expected to hear Brown’s appeal this spring and issue its decision by Aug. 31.
The case is Terrance J. Brown v. State of Maryland, No. 64, September Term 2015.