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August 21, 1991


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Frederick Dorsey, Trial Judge

Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Rogers, Chief Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman

Appellee, a Postal Service employee, is charged with the distribution of marijuana in violation of D.C. Code §§ 33-541 (a)(1), (2)(D) (1988). This is an expedited pretrial government appeal from the grant of a motion by appellee to suppress a statement he made to postal inspectors. The trial court ruled that the statement was inadmissible because it was involuntarily given. *fn1 Finding that the trial court relied on an erroneous legal principle in making its ruling, we reverse the determination of involuntariness and remand for further proceedings.

The broad framework within which the challenged statement was made, omitting certain arguably coercive elements to be mentioned later, may be summarized as follows. Appellee, a college graduate with a degree in business management, was summoned from his work to report, accompanied by his supervisor, *fn2 to the office of the Postal Inspection Service, which he entered through a door locked at least on the outside. Neither he nor his supervisor knew of the reason for the call. Appellee was taken into one of the Inspection Service's interview rooms, where he was closeted with Postal Inspectors Fry and Pinto. The purpose of the meeting was to recruit appellee as a confidential informant, using an alleged marijuana offense as an incentive.

The inspectors began the meeting with a full exposition of all of the evidence compiled by the Inspection Service against the defendant of the marijuana offense; viz., that he had sold marijuana out of his car in a McDonald's parking lot to one of the Service's confidential informants. The inspectors indicated the evidence's overwhelming character *fn3 and their lack of interest in anything he could add to their case.

In the course of the interview, according to the Postal Inspectors, appellee said, "I should have known there's something wrong with the bitch [the confidential informant]." He asserted that he didn't deal in drugs, but that as a favor, he had bought $20 worth of marijuana and then "gave the girl the reefer and she gave $20 while in car."

In response to the Postal Inspectors' attempt to recruit him as an undercover agent, appellee said that he wanted to think about it for a couple of days. Upon leaving the meeting, appellee promptly retained counsel, who told the Postal Inspectors that all future communications should come through her. A few days thereafter, appellee was arrested and his car impounded.

In making his written ruling excluding the statement from evidence, the trial court stated as a controlling legal principle that "a confession is necessarily involuntary if it is obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, or by exertion of any improper influence," citing Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542-43, 18 S. Ct. 183, 42 L. Ed. 568 (1897). *fn4

However, as the Supreme Court made clear three weeks after the trial court's decision in this case, "this passage from Bram. . . under current precedent does not state the standard for determining the voluntariness of a confession." Arizona v. Fulminante, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 1251, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302 (1991). Rather, the court indicated, the test is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the will of appellee was "overborne in such a way as to render his confession the product of coercion." 111 S. Ct. at 1253. Otherwise put, the test is whether an individual's "will has been overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired." Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225, 93 S. Ct. 2041, 36 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1973).

"'The ultimate issue of "voluntariness" is a legal question. . . .'" Fulminante, supra, at 1252 (quoting Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 110, 106 S. Ct. 445, 88 L. Ed. 2d 405 (1985)). While the trial court here in its Conclusions of law stated that the confrontation was "rife with coercion," and that "the implied and direct promise of lenience contrasted with the threat of adverse action was unmistakable," the precise underlying factual bases relied on by the trial court are not specifically set forth. However, taken most favorably to appellee, they essentially appear to be the following. First, appellee as a postal employee reasonably believed that he was under an obligation to cooperate with the Postal Inspectors. In United States v. Baird, 271 U.S. App. D.C. 121, 851 F.2d 376 (1988), however, the court held that even though a U.S. Coast Guard officer had been ordered to appear at an interview and was conditioned to obeying orders, he had not been subjected to coercive conduct that caused him to make an involuntary confession. Appellee distinguishes this case by noting that the interrogator there specifically said that the interview was voluntary and the officer was free to leave. *fn5 Whether a person has been told he or she is free to leave, besides bearing directly on the issue of custodial interrogation, see note 1 (supra) , may be a factor in the voluntariness determination. On the facts of this case, however, we conclude that the issue of just when appellee was told he was free to leave cannot control the question whether his will was overborne. *fn6

The other types of threats and promises relate to various consequences that might flow from appellee's decision with respect to serving as an undercover agent: that if appellee cooperated, Fry would so advise the Postmaster and the U.S. Attorney's office when the offense was reported, that his car would not be seized, and that cooperation might possibly lead only to a job suspension, but conversely, without such cooperation, his job, car, and criminal arrest and prosecution would be at stake. *fn7

We think that such portrayals of consequential aspects of potential courses of action do not, in the circumstances here, rise to the violation of the constitutional command that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. CONST. amend. V.

Supreme Court cases involving voluntariness

have focused upon the crucial element of police overreaching. While each confession has turned on its own set of factors justifying the Conclusion that police conduct was oppressive, all have contained a substantial element of coercive police conduct. Absent police conduct causally related to the confession, there is simply no basis for ...

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