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Criminal suspects wanting a lawyer had better be loud and clear. On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that requests for representation during police interrogations cannot be ambiguous or equivocal. “The question is not what defendant understood himself to be saying,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote, “but what a reasonable officer in the circumstances would have understood defendant to be saying.” The case was brought by Catarino Gonzalez Jr., who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Los Angeles police officer Filbert Cuesta and attempting to kill officer Richard Gabaldon in 1998. During interrogations at which Gonzalez confessed, he told detectives: “If for anything you guys are going to charge me, I want to talk to a public defender, too, for any little thing.” Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal ruled in 2003 that Gonzalez’s statement was a sufficiently clear request for counsel, and that detectives should have either stopped questioning him or clarified his intent. The high court disagreed, saying that based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, Gonzalez’s statement was too ambiguous to place the officers on alert that he had invoked his Miranda rights. “In the circumstances of this case,” Moreno wrote, “we conclude that a reasonable officer could have understood that defendant’s reference to a public defender if he was charged was not an unequivocal request for counsel at that moment.” A reasonable officer, he continued, “would have understood only that ‘the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel,’ which is insufficient under Davis to require cessation of questioning.” Ojai lawyer Sylvia Beckham, who represented Gonzalez, couldn’t be reached for comment. L.A.-based Deputy Attorney General James “Bill” Bilderback II said he was gratified by the court’s ruling, which he called a clarification, not a groundbreaker. The decision, he said, will be most useful for “real police officers interrogating real people.” The decision is People v. Gonzalez, 05 C.D.O.S. 672.

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