Jill Paperno, Esq.
All too often, we represent defendants who are intellectually limited, due to genetic or birth defects, lead poisoning, traumatic brain injury or other causes. We struggle to persuade prosecutors and judges that these disabilities should be considered during plea negotiations. But sometimes we fail to recognize the effect that mental disabilities may have on a defendant's ability to understand Miranda warnings, knowingly and intelligently waive rights, and withstand coercive tactics of aggressive officers.
If a defendant with such disabilities has given a statement, or consented to a search, defense counsel must become familiar with the law relating to admissibility of statements made by these defendants. But knowing the law is not enough. We must obtain our clients' educational, psychological and social services histories, and consult with an expert, or even better, put on our own expert at suppression hearings and trial. We should consider whether the client had the capacity to understand the words of an officer reading Miranda, and whether the client had the capacity to understand abstract concepts such as constitutional rights. We should consider whether the client is excessively compliant and more likely to simply agree with an officer's accusations. We should analyze the officer's questions and their impact on the particular responses. (Of course, this is all easier with a recorded interrogation.)
For a great example of the defense analysis and use of this information in a case in which the defendant, who had an IQ of 68, was convicted of numerous sex offenses, you must read the Fourth Department's decision in People v Knapp (2014 NY Slip Op 07801 [4th Dept 11/14/14]).
In Knapp, Justice Peradotto, writing for a unanimous Court, provides a comprehensive analysis of the law relating to admissibility of statements of defendants who have mental disabilities. The decision addresses both issues relating to Miranda as well as voluntariness, and recognizes the significance of defendant's highly compliant nature as tested by the expert, and the impact of the officer's tactics. To repeat - it is a "must read."
Kudos to defense counsel and the expert, who understood the importance of testing and analyzing the defendant's intellectual abilities and compliance characteristics, and linked them to related aspects of interrogation. The Court reversed the conviction, suppressed the defendant's statement, and dismissed certain counts, remanding others for retrial.