Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse at 40 Foley Square
Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse at 40 Foley Square (Bjoertvedt/Wikimedia)

A defendant’s conviction of four murders during warfare between rival drug gangs in the Bronx will stand after a federal appeals court ruled his confessions were properly admitted at trial.

Defendant Freddie Gonzalez claimed that his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated when federal and state agents questioned him at an immigration detention facility in Georgia in 2008, almost 18 years after the murders.

Gonzalez, who was given his Miranda rights, had written “no” in response to being asked whether he would submit to questioning. But when one of the agents told Gonzalez, who was awaiting deportation to the Dominican Republic, that he would be heading back to New York instead, Gonzalez told the agents not to leave because he was ready to talk.

He went on to confess to killing four people over a five-month period in the Bronx in 1990—confessions that Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin (See Profile) refused to suppress pretrial. His trial in Manhattan ended with convictions on four counts of intentional murder while engaged in a trafficking crime involving five or more kilograms of cocaine. Scheindlin sentenced him to life in prison.

Scheindlin had held that Gonzalez’s Miranda rights were not violated because he had re-initiated contact with his questioners after signing the first Miranda form and before the expiration of the six-hour “safe harbor” provision for questioning a person between their arrest and their presentment on the charges set out in 18 U.S.C. §3501c.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed Scheindlin on Wednesday in an opinion dealing with the safe harbor provision and addressing its potential for abuse.

Judges Robert Katzmann (See Profile), Ralph Winter (See Profile) and Guido Calabresi (See Profile) decided the appeal in United States v. Gonzalez, 12-2403-cr, with Winter writing for the court.

Winter said Scheindlin had credited the officers’ testimony that Gonzalez was not questioned until after he signed a second form indicating he was willing to talk and the circuit did not buy Gonzalez’ argument that the second form was invalid.

“Even assuming arguendo that the initial invocation was unambiguous, it was overridden by appellant’s subsequent decision to re-initiate the conversation by asking agents not to leave, indicating he wanted to speak with them,” he said.

Winter said the agents “merely told appellant that he had already been indicted and would thus be taken to New York,” which was “not an interrogatory statement” that sought an incriminating response. “It was not even a question, but simply a accurate statement of what was going to happen next.”

Further defeating Gonzalez’s argument was that the questioning did not begin immediately after he indicated he would talk to the officers. It came only after Gonzalez’s Miranda rights and his options were once again explained to him.

Winter then turned to the claim that Gonzalez’s confession was obtained in violation of the government’s duty under §3501 to speedily present him before a magistrate judge once he had been charged.

The safe harbor provision in §3501c prevents suppression of a statement elicited during an unreasonable delay in bringing a defendant before a magistrate as long as the confession is made “within six hours immediately following his arrest or other detention.”

Gonzalez claimed the six hours had expired because his arrest warrant was issued on July 24, 2008, and he was not questioned at the immigration detention facility until the following day.

“Few courts have had opportunity to determine precisely when this obligation is triggered in the context other than a formal arrest, but case law indicates that the indictment alone does not trigger it,” Winter said.

Here, neither the indictment nor the arrest “altered the character of the defendant’s detention” on immigration grounds, Winter said, and the court was holding that §3501c was not triggered by the indictment or arrest warrant.

“Nevertheless, we recognize the potential for some abuse in a system allowing unfettered interrogation of defendants who are incarcerated on other charges,” he said.

That concern was highlighted in a 20-year-old case, United States v. Perez, 733 F.2d 1026 (2d Cir. 1984), where Winter said the circuit recognized the “potential for collusion between federal and state agents to arrest and detain on one charge in order to interrogate on another.”

“While Section 3501c evinces a congressional intent to allow some questioning to take place before presentment, it is also clear that the period must be limited,” he said. “Therefore, we hold that defendants in federal custody on earlier unrelated charges, but for whom an arrest warrant on new charges is issued, are ‘arrested’ for purposes of section 3501 once any questioning on the new charges begins.”

“Any incriminating statement obtained within the six-hour safe harbor provided by 3501c is admissible, provided, of course, other applicable constitutional requirements are met,” he said. “Because appellant’s incriminating statements took place within this window and his Fifth and Sixth Amendment Miranda rights were not otherwise violated, the district court did not err in refusing to suppress appellant’s confessions.”

Tina Schneider of Portland, Maine argued for Gonzalez.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Maiman argued for the government, with Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Laurie Korenbaum, Jessica Lonergan and Brent Wible on the brief.