On Thursday, a divided 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that homicide detectives should have stopped questioning a criminal suspect who said his father had advised him to ask for a lawyer. The court found that Tio Dinero Sessoms had sufficiently asserted his right to an attorney when he informed the detectives of his father’s advice. The ruling now requires police to honor even ambiguous requests for counsel made by a suspect before informing the suspect of his/her right to an attorney.
The instant case involves a home burglary committed in 1999 in Sacramento, California. During the burglary, one of Sessom’s accomplices committed a murder. Sessoms fled to Oklahoma, where his father urged him to surrender to the police.
A video recording of the interrogation following Sessom’s surrender shows Sessom saying, “There wouldn’t be any possible way that I could have a…a lawyer present while we do this? … My dad asked me to ask you guys…uh, give me a lawyer.”
However, the homicide detectives told him that a lawyer would only hurt his case and bringing in a lawyer would be pointless as his accomplices had already divulged everything. After convincing him that asking for a lawyer was futile, the homicide detectives proceeded to read him his Miranda rights, which he waived and proceeded to implicate himself. He was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Upon appeal, a California state appeals court, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit did not find any violation of Sessom’s right to a lawyer. The lower court and the three-judge panel, both held Sessom’s requests for a lawyer to be ambiguous. However, the 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit disagreed 6-5.
Writing for the majority, Judge Betty Fletcher wrote, “Although it was couched in a polite and diffident manner, the meaning of Sessoms’s request was clear: he wanted a lawyer then and there.” The court also noted that suspects are held to a lower standard of clarity before they waive their Miranda rights.
Five judges dissented and held requests for an attorney must be unambiguous both before and after the Miranda rights warning. Judge Mary Murguia wrote in dissent, “A reasonable jurist could conclude that telling a detective ‘My dad told me to ask for a lawyer’ is different than saying ‘I want an attorney.”
The case was sent down for retrial or release of Sessom.