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Morales v. United States

January 13, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Criminal Division (M 1410-98). (Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, Judge).

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Reid and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

Submitted January 27, 2004

Police came to the home of Berta Morales, a Spanish-speaking immigrant from El Salvador, to question her about injuries her twelve-year-old son had sustained. After Morales admitted that she had hit her son with a belt, she was arrested. Her inculpatory statements to the police were introduced in evidence against her at trial as part of the prosecution's case-in-chief, and she was found guilty of simple assault. Morales now appeals the trial court's denial of her pretrial motion to suppress her statements. She claims that the police violated her rights under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Interpreter Act, D.C. Code §§ 2-1901 et seq. (2001), by subjecting her to a custodial interrogation without first giving her Miranda*fn1 warnings or providing her with a qualified interpreter.

The outcome of Morales's appeal turns on whether, taking all the circumstances into consideration, her interrogation was "custodial" in nature. We conclude that it was not and that her rights therefore were not violated. We affirm Morales's conviction.


The trial court denied Morales's motion to suppress her statements after an evidentiary hearing at which it took testimony from Morales and Metropolitan Police Officer Andres Marcucci, Jr.*fn2

The court's findings and conclusions in support of its ruling were not transcribed and are not included in the record on appeal. We therefore rely exclusively on the transcript of the witnesses' testimony to summarize the material facts.*fn3

On January 30, 1998, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School noticed suspicious markings on the body of twelve-year-old N.C., a sixth grade student at the school. The teacher contacted a school counselor, who examined N.C. and found "some markings which [she] considered to be severe in his left arm." N.C. explained that his mother had hit him with a belt. The counselor contacted Child Protective Services.

When N.C. did not return home from school that afternoon at the usual time, his mother, appellant Morales, telephoned the police. She was told that the police would be coming to see her that evening. Shortly thereafter, Detective Cheryl Wright-Smith, Officer Marcucci, and a child welfare worker arrived at Morales's apartment. N.C. was with them. "Grateful that they had brought him," Morales invited the police in. The officers asked N.C. to remain in a different room while they spoke with Morales in her living room. Several other persons were present elsewhere in the apartment, including Morales's other son and an adult family member.

Berta Morales is an immigrant from El Salvador who speaks little English. Anticipating that fact, Detective Wright-Smith had asked Officer Marcucci to accompany her to Morales's apartment to serve as an interpreter. Morales testified that Officer Marcucci "speaks Spanish very well" and that she was "able to understand everything he said."*fn4 The interview of Morales was conducted through Officer Marcucci's interpretation. The interview lasted a bit more than thirty minutes. It culminated in Morales's arrest.

Detective Wright-Smith explained to Morales that the police were there on account of the marks found on N.C.'s body. Morales understood that the police had "received a report that [she] yesterday punished [her] son," and that this was the reason her son had not come home that afternoon. Morales acknowledged that she had punished N.C., but when the police showed her photographs of his injuries, she denied having "done this" to him. She testified that the police responded that "yes, you have done it, you yourself have just stated that you punished him."

Detective Wright-Smith then asked Morales "several times" whether she had struck N.C. with an umbrella, which Morales repeatedly denied. Officer Marcucci testified that Morales gave "three different answers" to explain the marks on N.C.'s arms: "One was that he was in a fight at school . . . , one was that he fell from a bicycle, and . . . one was that he was horsing around, that he liked to play fight a lot."

At some point during the questioning, Morales attempted to go to the next room to get N.C. but was prevented from doing so. According to Officer Marcucci, Detective Wright-Smith "stopped her," saying, "no, we don't need him right here right now." Morales "said okay" when Detective Wright-Smith "said we gotta finish what we're doing here first before we call him." When asked whether Morales "was free to go get her son," Officer Marcucci testified that "at that moment we told her not to, just leave him where he was at." According to Morales herself, she wished to get N.C. from the next room in order to "tell me in front of the police . . . why it was they were telling me that my child had stated that I had hit him with an umbrella." Morales told the police three times that she wanted to see her son, and "they would not let me speak to him." ...

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