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Convicted Silver Spring killer seeks Supreme Court review of interrogation

A Silver Spring man convicted of murdering an old friend has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn the conviction, saying police failed to honor his constitutionally protected request for a lawyer made well before they began questioning him.

Rahul Gupta also said the police violated his constitutional rights – for a second time – by interrupting him when he asked to speak with a lawyer right after they advised him of his rights to an attorney and to remain silent. The officers then questioned him for nearly an hour about the 2013 slaying of Mark Waugh.

Maryland’s top court upheld Gupta’s conviction in March, saying his request for an attorney while in a holding cell did not need to be honored because he was not facing imminent interrogation by the police. The Court of Appeals also found no fault with the officers’ initial interruption, saying Gupta had ample opportunity to shut off the interrogation by repeating his request.

Gupta’s petition for Supreme Court review rests heavily on the justices’ 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona that suspects in custody have and must be advised of their rights to remain silent and to an attorney before they are questioned. However, the Supreme Court later stated in a footnote to its 1991 decision in McNeil v. Wisconsin that it has “never held that a person can invoke his Miranda rights anticipatorily,” as Gupta had done from the holding cell.

In the petition, Gupta’s attorney states that Miranda’s protections would be meaningless if they could not be invoked – as the Court of Appeals held – when a person is in custody but not yet being questioned.

Such a holding “would require an individual, already on the battlefield, to wait to request legal assistance until the state has placed its arrows in its quivers and pointed them at the suspect,” attorney Dawinder S. “Dave” Sidhu wrote. “The constitutional right of an individual to seek legal counsel should not be construed so narrowly.”

Rather, a request for counsel should be honored “when custodial interrogation is ‘imminent,’” or “objectively inevitable,” added Sidhu, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP in Washington.

An inevitability requirement “empowers an individual to invoke the constitutional right to counsel while on the battlefield, and when the slings from the state are objectively foreseeable,” Sidhu wrote.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has opted not to respond to Gupta’s petition, enabling the justices to consider it without the state’s opposition. The Supreme Court has scheduled its consideration of the petition for review for Sept. 25.

The case is docketed at the high court as Rahul Gupta v. Maryland, No. 17-12.

‘Gaming’ of rights?

Gupta, his girlfriend and Waugh had visited several bars on Oct. 12, 2013, in celebration of Gupta’s 24th birthday. But the joy turned to violence that night or early the next morning when Waugh, a friend of Gupta’s since high school, was stabbed to death at the Silver Spring apartment Gupta shared with his girlfriend, according to the Court of Appeals’ opinion.

Gupta was charged with first-degree murder, the motive being he had discovered his girlfriend and Waugh were in a romantic relationship.

While in a holding cell, Gupta asked for a lawyer but the request was not granted. Montgomery County detectives arrived about three hours later to interrogate him and advised him of his Miranda rights for the first time.

One detective interrupted Gupta while he was asking for an attorney and began questioning him. The interrogation lasted for 55 minutes during which Gupta made incriminating statements.

Gupta was convicted of first-degree murder on March 16, 2015, and sentenced to life in prison two months later.

Both the intermediate Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, noting that Gupta’s interrogation was not imminent when he requested counsel.

“It is irrelevant whether the detectives knew that Mr. Gupta had  been asking for a lawyer before the interrogation began, because the Miranda rights to counsel and to silence ‘must be asserted when the government seeks to take the action they protect against,’” the Court of Appeals held, quoting from McNeil. “Therefore, we hold that Mr. Gupta’s requests to see a lawyer, made while in a holding cell prior to interrogation, were made outside the context of a custodial interrogation, and thus did not constitute an invocation of his Miranda right to counsel.”

The Court of Appeals also discounted the officer’s interruption of Gupta, saying he could have clearly invoked his right to counsel at any other time during the interrogation.

Sidhu, in pressing Gupta’s request for Supreme Court review, said that “if the law of this case is allowed to stand, the state can intentionally wait to start an interrogation in order to create temporal distance between the request and the interrogation. The court should not tolerate a rule that would allow such gaming of one’s constitutional rights.”

In addition, Sidhu wrote, the Court of Appeals’ decision “condones an interrogation technique in which examiners intentionally ignore and literally run roughshod over an individual’s exercise of his or her Fifth Amendment rights” protected by Miranda.

“The opinion below, if not corrected, will permit this active subversion of Miranda and invariably will incentivize increasingly brazen interrogation techniques,” Sidhu added. “This court should, as it has done before, smoke out abusive interrogation practices and ensure that these techniques operate within the bounds of Miranda.”

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