A man sentenced to 68 months in prison for starting a fire at a building in Detroit Lakes has a second chance, either at a new trial or if the state declines to retry the case.
But the state relied almost exclusively on statements that should have been suppressed elicited from the defendant after police read him his Miranda rights. The Court found the defendant made an ambiguous invocation of his right to counsel, but ambiguity did not mean the police should continue to question him as they did.
The case, State v. Bogatz, was reversed by the Court of Appeals in an opinion by Judge John Smith. The court said, “[W]here a suspect’s request for counsel is equivocal or ambiguous, but could be construed as a request for counsel, Minnesota law requires that all questioning cease except for ‘narrow questions designed to “clarify” the accused’s desires respecting counsel.’ ”
Bogatz was charged with first-degree arson and told police the owner of the building and the owner’s son told him to start the fire. Bogatz told police that he broke into the building to make it look like a burglary but that his roommate started the fire. (Local reports at the time were that he had some pastry frosting on a finger and left a print on the door of the building.)
The jury saw a complete hour-and-a-half video of the interrogation, which occurred at the Becker County jail. The state made repeated reference to Bogatz’s statements during the opening statement and closing arguments. He was ordered to pay restitution in addition to serving 68 months.
Bogatz first told police it would be smart for him to have a lawyer. He also said he’d like to hear what police have to say. Police said they wouldn’t tell him anything unless it was clear he agreed to speak with them. “This was a tricky way of getting Bogatz to say yes (to speaking with police) rather than clarifying whether he was giving up his right to remain silent and waiving his right to counsel,” Smith wrote. The focus of the conversation was about Bogatz hearing what police had to say, not about whether he waived his right to remain silent, the court noted.
The court distinguished the case on which the state relied, State v. Ortega, 798 N.W.2nd (Minn. 2011). In that case, the defendant’s request for counsel occurred before receiving his rights. After being read his rights, the defendant agreed to speak, dispelling any preexisting ambiguity.
But Bogatz received his Miranda warning before making his equivocal request for counsel, so the warning could not have served to clarify his ambiguous request because he had not made his request when the officers gave him his warning, Smith wrote.
Failure to suppress the evidence was not harmless error, the court continued. The court considered the manner in which the evidence was presented, whether it was highly persuasive, whether it was used in closing argument, whether it was effectively countered by the defendant and whether there was overwhelming evidence of guilt. It found that all five factors favored a determination that the error was not harmless. The jury watched the entire interrogation and the prosecutor repeatedly quoted from it, including in closing argument the Court noted.
The Court of Appeals was not moved by the state’s argument that its own video, the central focus of the case, was not highly persuasive. The defendant did not put on a case, so there was little else for the jury to consider.
Finally, the state itself acknowledged that the evidence of Bogatz’s guilt “[fell] short of being overwhelming.”