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Confession during alcohol withdrawal involuntary

Bradley

“Though the court of appeals and the circuit court did not identify a single act by the police that was egregious, put together, the actions of the police and the personal characteristics of Hoppe indicate that Hoppe’s statements were involuntary.”

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley
Wisconsin Supreme Court

Even though police did not act egregiously when interviewing a suspect, the statement was involuntary where the suspect was severely debilitated by alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held on May 22.

On March 6, 1999, police were dispatched to Paul Hoppe’s apartment to investigate a death. The police found Hoppe sitting in the living room with the body of his girlfriend, Jacqueline Simon, on the floor next to him.

Hoppe was transported to the hospital, because police thought he was intoxicated, but he was not placed under arrest. In fact, Hoppe was not intoxicated, but was suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal.

Police Captain Kevin Manthey, the officer in charge of the investigation, who had known Hoppe for 25 years, asked for and received permission from Hoppe for an interview. Prior to the interview, a physician prescribed Librium to control possible delirium tremors.

However, the police asked a nurse who was preparing to administer the medication whether she could hold off the medication so they could interview Hoppe. The nurse did so, and Manthey interviewed Hoppe for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Hoppe denied harming Simon in a confused and conflicting statement.

Hoppe’s treating physician diagnosed him as suffering from chronic alcoholism, alcohol withdrawal, threatened delirium tremors, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and chronic brain syndrome secondary to alcohol abuse. According to the physician, Hoppe was confused and remained so for the first three or four days of his hospital stay.

On March 8, police again interviewed Hoppe, for an hour and forty-five minutes. During the 37-hour interval between the two interviews, the police placed no restrictions on Hoppe, his visitors, or his medical care.

Hoppe repeatedly denied that he had hit her or pushed Simon, and insisted that she was alive on the morning of the sixth. Hoppe’s voice was slurred and he spoke slowly with long pauses. At several points during the interview, Hoppe closed his eyes and did not answer. Captain Manthey believed that at least a few times when Hoppe closed his eyes, he actually fell asleep.

Hoppe may also have been experiencing hallucinations, for at one point Captain Manthey interrupted the interview to say, “There’s no one else here, Paul.”

During this second interview, a psychologist experienced in treating alcoholics came to see Hoppe, but police told him to return later. According to the doctor, who did see Hoppe approximately one hour after the police concluded the second interview, Hoppe was in a somewhat delirious state, in and out of consciousness, and had difficulty concentrating.

The doctor also concluded that Hoppe had short-term memory impairment and that his abstract reasoning, judgment, and problem-solving abilities were impaired. He determined that Hoppe was either hallucinating or delusional.

The police conducted a third interview on March 9, for two hours. During this interview, Hoppe admitted that he had given a false alibi during the previous interviews. During this interview, Manthey raised emotional topics such as the death of Hoppe’s parents, Hoppe’s military service, and the death he saw in Vietnam. He also discussed how Simon’s family was feeling and their need for an answer as to what had happened to Simon. He told Hoppe that, although he could not make any promises, he would tell the district attorney if Hoppe cooperated.

By the end of the interview, Hoppe admitted that he and Simon had argued on March 5. He said that she hit him and called him a “drunken old bum,” and that he had hit her several times. After she fell to the floor, he kicked her a number of times with at least one kick to the head.

Hoppe was charged with Simon’s death, and moved to suppress the statements. At the hearing, a doctor from the hospital opined that Hoppe had a condition called “confabulation,” meaning that the person hides the things he or she cannot remember by adding details that sound logical but which are not necessarily true.

He also testified
that he had reviewed the transcripts of the three interviews and in his opinion, Hoppe did not understand everything that was going on during those interviews or what was in his best interest. The doctor said that Hoppe was not competent to consent to being questioned and did not have the reasoning or understanding to withdraw his consent to questioning.

He explained that because of confabulation, Hoppe was susceptible to suggestions and would answer things in a certain way to please the questioner. He diagnosed Hoppe’s condition at the time of the interviews as “dementia and alcohol delirium, the latter caused by alcohol withdrawal.”

Another doctor testified that a person who is confabulating is trying to tell the truth and is trying to be cooperative. The likely result of being told he or she is lying is that the person would come up with a different answer, and that is what appeared to happen in the interviews. In his opinion, Hoppe’s competency to consent to questioning, and his ability to comprehend the circumstances, was impaired.

Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Richard Rehm held the statements involuntary, and granted the motion to suppress. The court of appeals affirmed in an unpublished decision, and the Supreme Court granted review and affirmed in a decision by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

Justice Diane S. Sykes dissented, in an opinion joined by Justice David T. Prosser.

Standard of Law

What the court held

Case: State of Wisconsin v. Paul D. Hoppe, No. 00-1886-CR.

Issue: Can a suspect’s statements be involuntary because of his debilitated mental and physical condition, even if the police engaged in no improper conduct?

Holding: Yes. Even if police pressure was not improper, it can be coercive enough to exceed a suspect’s ability to resist, if that suspect is seriously debilitated.

Counsel: James M. Freimuth, James E. Doyle, Madison, for appellant; William E. Schmaal, Madison, for respondent.

The court rejected the State’s contention that the court of appeals and the circuit court overemphasized Hoppe’s mental status while minimizing the importance of what both courts acknowledge was not extreme misconduct, citing Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986).

In Connelly, the defendant approached a police officer and stated that he murdered someone and wanted to talk about it. After being repeatedly advised of his Miranda rights, the defendant detailed the story of a murder he committed and revealed the exact location of the murder.

An examination by a doctor the next day indicated that the defendant was following the “voice of God” in confessing to the murder, and that he suffered from a psychosis that interfered with his ability to make free and rational choices. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court held the statement admissible.

Interpreting the Connelly decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded, “Essentially, the Court recognized that egregious police conduct is not necessary for a finding of involuntariness and that certain subtle pressures that are not coercive for an ordinary person could be considered coercive for a person who is suffering from mental difficulties. The Court however qualified this with its conclusion that there must be police conduct causally related to the confession for the confession to be considered involuntary.”

The court further stated, “some coercive or improper police conduct must exist in order to sustain a finding of involuntariness. However, police conduct does not need to be egregious or outrageous in order to be coercive. Rather, subtle pressures are considered to be coercive if they exceed the defendant’s ability to resist. Accordingly, pressures that are not coercive in one set of circumstances may be coercive in another set of circumstances if the defendant’s condition renders him or her uncommonly susceptible to police pressures.”

Application

The court agreed with the factual findings regarding Hoppe’s vulnerable physical and mental state. Turning to the pressures used by the police, the court found they were overwhelming, given Hoppe’s debilitated condition.

The court noted that the questioning lasted for approximately five hours over three days, the longest interview being two hours. In addition, during the third interview, during which the incriminating statements were made, the questioning was more direct and accusatory, and psychological pressure was used by discussing emotional topics.

Finally, the court noted that no Miranda warnings were given. The court acknowledged that Miranda warnings were not required in this case, but stated that it is nevertheless a proper consideration in determining voluntariness.

The court also acknowledged that there was no egregious or outrageous police conduct, no threats or promises, and that a relatively friendly tone was used in the interviews.

However, the court agreed with the lower courts that the statements were not voluntary. The court stated, “Though the court of appeals and the circuit court did not identify a single act by the police that was egregious, put together, the actions of the police and the personal characteristics of Hoppe indicate that Hoppe’s statements were involuntary. The tactics used and the pressures exerted by the police were subtle and certainly not improper if used in the questioning of a person whose personal characteristics did not make him or her uncommonly susceptible to police pressures.”

Accordingly, the court affirmed.

The Dissent

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Case Analysis

Justice Sykes dissented, concluding that improper police tactics are a prerequisite for finding a statement involuntary.
Sykes complained that the majority opinion took passages from Connelly out of context, and quoted from the decision as follows: “Thus, the cases considered by this Court over the 50 years since Brown v. Mississippi [the Supreme Court’s seminal confession case] have focused upon the crucial element of police overreaching. While each confession case has turned on its own set of factors justifying the conclusion that police conduct was oppressive, all have contained a substantial element of coercive police conduct. Absent police conduct causally related to the confession, there is simply no basis for concluding that any state actor has deprived a criminal defendant of due process of law. Respondent correctly notes that as interrogators have turned to more subtle forms of psychological persuasion, courts have found the mental condition of the defendant a more significant factor in the ‘voluntariness’ calculus. But this fact does not justify a conclusion that a defendant’s mental condition, by itself and apart from its relation to official coercion, should ever dispose of the inquiry into constitutional ‘voluntariness.’ Connelly, 479 U.S. at 163-64 (internal citations omitted).”

Sykes also quoted the following passage from State v. Clappes, 136 Wis.2d 222, 239, 401 N.W.2d 759 (1987), the leading Wisconsin case applying Connelly: “in order to justify a finding of involuntariness, there must be some affirmative evidence of improper police practices deliberately used to procure a confession.”

Because of the absence of any police coercion or improper conduct, Sykes concluded that the statements were voluntary and should have been admitted.

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David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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