Supreme Court vacates non-capital Ninth Circuit en banc decision concerning invocation of right to counsel.
Posted on: 7/1/2013 02:43:57 PM by Peoples

On June 27, 2013, the Supreme Court granted the warden’s certiorari petition in Grounds v. Sessoms, 12-804, vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Salinas v. Texas, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). In Salinas, the Court upheld a conviction where the defendant never expressly invoked his right against self-incrimination during voluntary questioning and his failure to answer certain questions was later used as evidence of his guilt.

The vacated Ninth Circuit decision, Sessoms v. Runnels, 691 F.3d 1054 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc), involved a young defendant suspected of murder who had turned himself in to the police. After two police officers entered the interrogation room where Sessoms was waiting, and before Sessoms was provided his rights under Miranda, the following exchange occurred:

Sessoms: There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a — a lawyer present while we do this?

[Detective]: Well, uh, what I'll do is, um —

Sessoms: Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys ... uh, give me a lawyer.

Rather than ceasing the interrogation, the officers convinced Sessoms that the only way to get his side of the story told was to speak to them without an attorney. They informed him that they already knew what had happened from his accomplices. Sessoms eventually agreed to speak and made incriminatory statements. The state courts rejected his argument that his statements were subject to suppression because he had invoked his right to counsel. The intermediate appellate court applied Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994), and found that Sessoms had failed to unequivocally request counsel. In federal habeas proceedings, the district court denied relief. Although a divided three-judge appellate panel found that the Davis decision was not clearly established federal law because Sessoms’ remarks about counsel did not occur following a Miranda warning, it nevertheless concluded that it was not unreasonable for the state court to require an unambiguous request for counsel from a defendant before governments officials are constitutionally compelled to halt an interrogation.

The en banc court then held that the state court unreasonably extended the principle from Davis to a new context. It also found that other Supreme Court precedent, Berghuis v. Thompkins, 130 S.Ct. 2250 (2010), was inapplicable because it involved a situation where the defendant, unlike Sessoms, had been provided with his Miranda rights. Because the en banc court concluded that the state court decision was unreasonable, it reviewed the suppression claim de novo and held that Sessoms was entitled to relief.