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4th Circuit reverses Baltimore bank-robbery conviction, cites coerced statement

(Rommel Canlas / Depositphotos.com)

(Rommel Canlas / Depositphotos.com)

A divided federal appeals court overturned a Baltimore bank-robbery conviction Tuesday, saying city and county detectives unconstitutionally coerced the defendant into making ultimately incriminating statements.

The detectives made it clear to Master Giddins that he was not free to leave the police station with his car until he answered their questions despite informing him of his right to remain silent, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its 2-1 decision. The detectives also assured Giddins he was not in trouble when in fact they were already holding his arrest warrant on charges of robbery, the court added.

Based on what he was told, Giddins involuntarily waived his right to silence and spoke with Baltimore detective William Taylor and Baltimore County detective Steve Morano on Oct. 4, 2013, the court said.

Giddins told the officers he was at work when an M&T Bank in Baltimore was robbed 10 days earlier by a man dressed in women’s clothing and wearing a black wig who witnesses said handed a teller a note stating he had a bomb. Witnesses also testified said Giddins was not at work that day.

A U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore found Giddins guilty of bank robbery and conspiracy to commit bank robbery. He then appealed to the 4th Circuit, successfully arguing through counsel that he was coerced into waiving his right to remain silent — as police must advise people being held in custody under the 1966 Supreme Court decision Miranda v. Arizona.

“Giddins relied on his car to get him to his job, and it was the means of maintaining his (law-abiding) livelihood,” Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote in the 4th Circuit’s majority opinion. “What matters is how a reasonable person would have understood the responses to the questions asked; detective Taylor’s responses indicated that if Giddins failed to sign the Miranda waiver and answer questions, Giddins would not have had his car returned to him. As such it was unduly coercive.”

The majority added that Giddins asked the officers directly if he was in trouble and was told he was not.

“Once an arrest warrant issues, there is no question that Detective Morano and detective Taylor affirmatively misled Giddins as to the true nature of the investigation by failing to inform him he was the subject of the investigation,” wrote Floyd, who was joined by Judge Robert B. King. “This form of deceit thus constitutes coercion.”

In dissent, Judge G. Steven Agee said the officers did not coerce a statement out of Giddins, who had voluntarily come to the station to retrieve his car after the police had impounded it during their robbery investigation.

“Giddins, not the police, initiated the contact because he wanted something from them,” Agee wrote. “From the outset, then, a reasonable person would understand that because he was at liberty to come to the police station for his own purposes, he was equally at liberty to leave.”

In addition, the detectives did not coerce Giddins by telling him he was not in trouble, as the officers also told him he was free not to answer their questions, Agee wrote. The police are not bound to apprise suspects of the state of a criminal investigation, the judge added.

“(T)he Supreme Court has never considered whether an affirmative representation about the scope of an interrogation would render a Miranda waiver involuntary,” Agee wrote.

“But that court has held that ‘a valid waiver does not require that an individual be informed of all information useful in making his decision or all information that might affect his decision to (talk to the police),” Agee added, quoting from the high court’s 1987 Colorado v. Spring decision. “What’s more, the court has ‘never read the Constitution to require that the police supply a suspect with a flow of information to help him calibrate his self-interest in deciding whether to speak or stand by his rights.’”

Assistant Federal Public Defender Meghan S. Skelton, who represented Giddins before the 4th Circuit, called the decision “a reminder that the police have to abide by the rule of law when interrogating suspects.”

The U.S. solicitor general’s office can ask the full 4th Circuit to review the decision or appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

The 4th Circuit issued its published decision in United States of America v. Master Giddins, No. 15-4039.


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