Was Question Covered by Pedigree Exception to Miranda?
Those of us addicted to police procedurals (Lucas Davenport, Virgil Flowers, and Harry Bosch in my case) can recite the Miranda warning from memory. But, as a recent decision by the New York Court of Appeals illustrates, there are exceptions to the rule that never appear in crime novels.
The police entered an apartment pursuant to a search warrant. While in custody, but before an arrest was made and contraband was found, a police officer asked the defendant where he lived? Did the question fall within the “pedigree exception” to the Miranda rule?
In May 2011, police officers executed a search warrant at an apartment in Brooklyn. When the officers entered the apartment, Tyrone Wortham and his two young children were inside. Pursuant to police department policy, Wortham was handcuffed. While still inside the apartment, a detective asked his name, date of birth, address, height, and weight. Wortham stated that his children’s mother let him stay at the apartment, motioning toward a bed in the living room. No Miranda warnings were given before those questions were asked. The detective asked Wortham for his pedigree information before any contraband was found in the apartment. After Wortham’s departure from the apartment, the officers recovered weapons, drugs, and drug paraphernalia from a back bedroom. Wortham and a codefendant were jointly indicted and tried on several counts related to the possession of firearms and controlled substances.
The admissibility of Wortham’s statement that he lived at the apartment was the subject of a pretrial suppression hearing. During that hearing, the detective who asked Wortham for his “pedigree” information testified that it was the policy of the New York City Police Department to handcuff all adults found inside a location where a search warrant was to be executed, pat them down for weapons, ask them certain questions for identification purposes, and then transport them from the search warrant location to the precinct or central booking. The questions typically included the person’s name, date of birth, address, height, and weight. The detective testified that all adults found inside a searched location were asked those pedigree questions, regardless of whether contraband was ultimately found during the search, and the information was entered into the online booking system. If the individual was later arrested, the police would have pedigree information for the person under arrest. If that person were not later arrested, the information would still be entered into the online booking system in order to document that the individual had been in police custody at one point. The detective further testified that he followed this procedure with Wortham. After the hearing, the suppression court ruled that Wortham’s statement that he lived in the apartment was admissible because it fell within the scope of the pedigree exception to the Miranda requirement.
The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that the pedigree exception to Miranda applied and that the trial court properly denied Wortham’s motion to suppress his statementWortham appealed to the Court of Appeals.
Miranda warnings are required before a person in custody is subjected to interrogation by the police. The term “interrogation” under Miranda refers not only to express questioning but also to any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.
Pedigree questions, also sometimes referred to as “booking questions,” typically ask a suspect for identifying information such as name, date of birth, and address. Those questions constitute custodial interrogation when they are posed to a suspect in custody. But there is an exception to Miranda for pedigree questions. The exception derives from the essential purpose of Miranda—to protect defendants from self-incrimination in response to questions posed as part of the investigation of a crime, as distinguished from non-investigative inquiries. Pedigree questions are an exception to Miranda—that is, a defendant’s response to such questions is not suppressible even when obtained in violation of Miranda—when the questions are reasonably related to the police’s administrative concerns.
Pedigree questions must be reasonably related to the police’s administrative concerns for the pedigree exception to Miranda to apply. However, the exception may not apply in certain situations even if the question was reasonably related to police administrative concerns. And the mere claim by the People that admission was made in response to a question posed solely as an administrative concern does not automatically qualify that admission for the pedigree exception to Miranda.
When will pedigree exception (not) apply? The exception does not apply if the questions, though facially appropriate, were likely to elicit incriminating admissions because of the circumstances of the particular case. Stated another way, the exception applied where the question was not a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation.
Whether the information gathered turns out to be incriminating in some respect does not, by itself, alter the general rule that pedigree questioning does not require a Miranda warning. If the biographical questions were reasonably related to police administrative concerns and thereby met the threshold requirement for the pedigree exception to apply, the fact that the response given by the defendant ultimately turned out to be incriminating at trial did not alter the analysis. Simply because a pedigree question elicited an incriminating response did not preclude the application of the pedigree exception to Miranda.
The primary purpose of Miranda is to protect defendants from self-incrimination in response to questions posed as part of the investigation of a crime. The police are entitled to make a reasonable inquiry as to the identity of the person they have taken into custody. As a result, when a defendant challenges the application of the pedigree exception, the proper inquiry for the suppression court is whether the police used pedigree questions as a guise for improperly conducting an investigative inquiry without first providing a Miranda warning.
And the pedigree exception will not apply– even if the pedigree question was reasonably related to police administrative concerns– where, under the circumstances of the case, a reasonable person would conclude based on an objective analysis that the pedigree question was a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation. Confining the scope of the pedigree exception to police inquiries that are directed solely to administrative concerns, but precluding application of the pedigree exception where an objective analysis demonstrates that the police were using the cover of pedigree questions to improperly conduct an investigative inquiry without a Miranda warning, was consistent with the policies underlying the Miranda rule.
Applying those principles to the Wortham case: the Court of Appeals concluded that the pedigree exception applied and the suppression motion was properly denied. During the suppression hearing, the detective’s testimony established the administrative purpose for seeking pedigree information from any adults found at a location where a search warrant was to be executed because the police must know whom they have in custody. The People thereby established the threshold basis for the pedigree exception to apply, i.e., the questions were reasonably related to the police’s administrative concerns.
And the pedigree questions were not a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation. Notably, the police asked Wortham his name, date of birth, and where he lived immediately after they entered the apartment before the apartment had been searched, and before any contraband had been found. The detective further testified that it was standard practice for all adults found at a location where a search warrant was executed to be handcuffed and asked those pedigree questions, regardless of whether contraband was found during the search. That Wortham’s response ultimately turned out to be incriminating did not alter the conclusion that at the time it was asked, the question was not a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation by the police.
Asking a suspect for his name and address was neither intended nor likely to elicit information of a criminal nature. Here, the question posed regarding where Wortham lived was reasonably related to the police’s administrative concerns and, under the circumstances, was not a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation. The pedigree exception to Miranda applied, and no Miranda warnings were required before police asked Wortham for that information. The suppression motion was properly denied.
Postscript: The Court of Appeals nevertheless held that reversal was warranted because the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Wortham’s motion for a Frye hearing concerning the evidence seized. And Judges Rivera and Wilson dissented in part as to the Frye hearing remand and denial of a severance motion.