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Morton v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

October 29, 2015

Fredrick E. Morton, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

Argued November 19, 2014

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF2-2583-12) Hon. Lynn Leibovitz, Trial Judge

Justin Murray, Public Defender Service, with whom James Klein, Public Defender Service, was on the brief, for appellant.

Anne Y. Park, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, John P. Mannarino, and Thomas A. Bednar, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before Washington, Chief Judge, Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judge, and Ferren, Senior Judge.



Appellant Fredrick E. Morton ("Mr. Morton") was charged with a series of crimes[1] in connection with a burglary in which he allegedly broke into an apartment and stole several items including a wallet, credit cards, and a set of car keys which were used to steal a car parked nearby. Before trial, Mr. Morton filed a motion to suppress certain incriminating statements he made immediately prior to his formal arrest, arguing that he was handcuffed and interrogated by police without the protection of Miranda[2] warnings in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion, and the government used appellant's non-Mirandized statements to connect him to the stolen items. The jury acquitted appellant on all charges except for one felony receiving stolen property (RSP) count predicated on the stolen car, and one misdemeanor RSP count predicated on the wallet and credit cards. On appeal, Mr. Morton asserts that the trial court erred in concluding he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda at the time he made incriminating statements. Mr. Morton argues he was in Miranda custody, given that he was stopped on the suspicion of drug activity, chased by police, apprehended, handcuffed, and subsequently questioned about circumstances concerning his involvement in a crime. We conclude that, based on the totality of the circumstances in this case, a reasonable person, in appellant's position, would not have felt free to leave and terminate police questioning and was subject to a restraint on his freedom of movement tantamount to formal arrest. Because Mr. Morton was in Miranda custody during the police questioning, he was entitled to Fifth Amendment protections before the officers questioned him, and therefore, the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress his incriminating statements.

I. Facts and Procedural History

On June 28, 2009, at approximately 8:50 a.m., Metropolitan Police Department Officers Randy Washington and Travis Gray were on patrol in an area in Northeast D.C. known for drug activity when they observed three men, including Mr. Morton, standing together in an alleyway near a park. Officer Washington testified that Mr. Morton appeared to be engaging in a "hand-to-hand" transaction. Officer Washington did not see objects exchanged, but he suspected drug activity and instructed Officer Gray to pull over to investigate. The officers got out of their vehicle, approached the group, asked what they were doing, and requested to see identification. Two of the men showed identification, but Mr. Morton patted his pockets as if to look for identification and fled. Officer Gray pursued appellant on foot, and after briefly staying with the other two men, Officer Washington followed his partner. As Mr. Morton was running, Officer Washington saw Mr. Morton throw a small object to the ground. Officer Washington went to the area where he had seen the object land and found a wallet, which contained various cards and identification.

Meanwhile, Officer Gray stopped appellant approximately 200 yards away from where the officers had first seen the men. Officer Washington went to where his partner had appellant detained. Mr. Morton was placed in handcuffs, which Officer Washington testified was for the purpose of Mr. Morton's and the officers' safety. Neither of the officers brandished their weapons. Officer Washington testified that Mr. Morton "was not under arrest, but was detained." After appellant was handcuffed, Officer Gray informed appellant that he was not under arrest, but stated, "We need to know why you ran. Why would you run if you didn't do anything?" Appellant responded that he ran "because [he] had a needle" on him. The officers then asked Mr. Morton's name, and he responded that it was "Michael Morton" and provided a date of birth. After the officers ran a check on the name and it did not meet appellant's description, the officers engaged in a "back and forth" with Mr. Morton concerning his identity, and Mr. Morton ultimately provided his true name. While waiting for the dispatcher to obtain Mr. Morton's true name, Officer Washington began to question Mr. Morton about the wallet he saw him throw while being pursued.[3] Specifically, Officer Washington asked, "What was up with the wallet?" Mr. Morton responded, "What wallet?" and Officer Washington replied, "The wallet that you threw. It's right behind you. I saw you throw a wallet. What's up with the wallet?" Appellant responded, "[O]h, I found it on the metro." The officers then received the results of the name check from the dispatcher, who informed the officers of a warrant for Mr. Morton's arrest (for reasons unrelated to this case). At that point, Mr. Morton was placed under formal arrest and searched. Among the items the police found on him were a set of car keys, a Safeway receipt, and a business card for a pawn shop.

Officer Washington testified that later that day, after he arrested Mr. Morton, he took the keys and wallet and drove to the address listed on the identification contained in the wallet. The resident of that address, Kwesi Cobbina ("Mr. Cobbina"), informed Officer Washington that his apartment had been burglarized recently, that his wallet and keys had been stolen during the burglary along with his car, and that a credit card had been fraudulently used at a Safeway store. Officer Washington returned the wallet and keys to the owner, and did not preserve them as evidence or take photos of them. The next day, Officer Washington returned to the area of Mr. Morton's arrest, where he found Mr. Cobbina's car, containing a needle wrapper, which Mr. Cobbina stated was not in the car before the theft.

On February 8, 2012, appellant was charged with second-degree burglary, [4] first-degree theft, [5] unauthorized use of a vehicle ("UUV"), [6] credit card fraud, [7] misdemeanor receiving stolen property predicated on a wallet and credit cards (RSP), [8] and felony RSP predicated on a vehicle.[9] Before trial, appellant filed a motion to suppress his statements under Miranda, and after a hearing, the trial judge denied the appellant's motion based on her conclusion that Mr. Morton was not in custody for purposes of Miranda at the time he was interrogated by police. The government made use of appellant's incriminating statements to show that appellant possessed Mr. Cobbina's property and that he did so with knowledge that it was stolen. Mr. Morton was tried by a jury and was acquitted on all charges except the felony RSP charge and the misdemeanor RSP charge. Appellant was sentenced to one year of imprisonment for the misdemeanor RSP conviction and seven years of imprisonment for the felony RSP conviction, to run concurrently. This appeal followed.

II. Standard of Review

When reviewing a denial of a motion to suppress, this court defers to the trial court's factual findings unless clearly erroneous and considers all inferences in favor of the prevailing party. See Griffin v. United States, 878 A.2d 1195, 1198 (D.C. 2005). All legal conclusions are reviewed de novo, including whether a suspect was in custody for purposes of Miranda. In re I.J., 906 A.2d 249, 261-62 (D.C. 2006) ("This court will defer to the trial court's findings of fact, but will review de novo whether, on those facts, the person was in custody.").

III. Analysis

The Fifth Amendment provides that "[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const. amend. V. Under Miranda v. Arizona, this constitutional rule precludes the prosecution's use in its case-in-chief of statements that have been elicited during custodial interrogation without the benefit of "prophylactic warnings . . . which inform criminal defendants of various constitutional rights, " regardless of whether those unwarned statements would otherwise be considered "compelled." In re I.J., 906 A.2d at 255; see White v. United States, 68 A.3d 271, 276 (D.C. 2013). Miranda warnings are required whenever a suspect is both (1) in custody and (2) under interrogation. Id. In the present case, the government does not contest that the appellant was subjected to interrogation when Officer ...

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