Robert William Potter sexually abused his daughter, H., when she was five years old.
H. disclosed the sexual abuse to her mother and provided other details about the abuse to a police officer who responded to H’s grandmother’s house to take her statement. About a month later, H. revealed further details during an interview at the special assault forensic evaluation (SAFE) center in Sacramento County, near where she lived.
The Gist of this Article: There is no Miranda violation if, when being questioned, defendant is advised by police that defendant is free to leave at any time and is free to stop the questioning. Such information from police is important to preventing the questioning from being custodial in nature and then requiring a Miranda warning.
Thereafter, Detective Jenny Wirtz called Robert Potter and asked him whether he would agree to come down to the police station for an interview.
Potter agreed and went to the police station. After some preliminary questions, Wirtz asked Potter whether he had been sexually assaulted in the past. Potter said he had been molested when he was twelve or thirteen, his uncle had molested him.
Wirtz then told Potter that she believed “some things have been goin’ on with some other family members” and that “kinda’ stems from” Potter’s prior abuse. Potter then admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct with his brother and sister while he was still a child, and “one more on sister” when he was older.
Wirtz then directed the questioning toward Potter’s relationship with H. and informed Potter, “there’s been some allegations.” Potter responded, “I have no information on anything.” Wirtz then explained that she had known H.’s mom had taken H. away from Potter once before (when H. was three years old) and then recently as well. Wirtz asked, “what was that about?”
Potter then explained it was due to sexual abuse allegations. Potter explained that H. had told her mom that some man had done “bad things” to her, but Potter insisted he was innocent. Wirtz then accused Potter of calling his daughter a liar.
Wirtz then asked Potter to submit to a polygraph examination and Potter agreed. Two weeks later, he went to the police station and underwent about a 30-minute interview. The detective started by informing Potter that the interview was completely voluntary, adding “you don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want.” Potter responded, “I got you.” The detective added, “You can stop this anytime you want and walk out, there’s the door.”
The detective then explained how a polygraph examination was conducted and told Potter, “I’m working here for you today, okay? I’m on your side and I want you to pass. I’m not here to judge you.”
The detective then asked Potter why he was there. Potter explained that he was accused of molesting his daughter. After discussing how he was molested as a child, the detective advised Potter that H. had told others that Potter had put his erect penis in H.’s mouth.
The detective (pretending to be sympathetic) then asked Potter, “well, there has to be some regression maybe,” or something defendant had not “dealt with,” stemming from his prior sexual abuse. The patient and polite detective then told Potter that he thought Potter was a nice guy and added, “well, I’m sure you did not want to hurt her, right?” Potter said, “Of course.”
The detective then asked Potter to tell him what happened and why. Potter then explained, “Um, honestly, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking . . . “ and explained how she would orally copulate him to ejaculation. He then asked if he could leave and police took him home.
Defendant was later arrested and charged with one count of oral copulation. He was then convicted of oral copulation of a child ten years of age or younger and sentenced to an indeterminate term of 15 years to life in state prison.
He then appealed, contending his confession during the one hour and 45-minute interview should have been excluded because it was obtained during a custodial interrogation without Miranda warnings. He had other grounds for appeal in addition, but this article will limit its scope to the Miranda issue.
The Third Appellate District rejected this argument, pointing out how at all times in his questioning, he was reminded that he could leave at any time, he was not arrested and that he could stop the questioning whenever he decided. The fact that the questioning took place at a police station does not, by itself, render the interrogation custodial and thereby require Miranda warnings.
We present this article to show how Miranda warnings are mandatory only when certain conditions arise and, in this case, the appellate court found the totality of the circumstances did not require the warnings.
The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Robert William Potter (3rd App. Dist., 2021) 66 Cal. App. 5th 528, 281 Cal. Rptr. 3d 273.
For more information about when Miranda warnings are required, please click on the following articles: