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State v. Censullo

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

June 16, 2017

State of New Hampshire
v.
Robert Censullo, Jr.,

         The defendant, Robert Censullo, Jr., appeals his convictions, following a jury trial, on three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. See RSA 632-A:2, III (2016). He argues that the Superior Court (Garfunkel, J.) erred in denying his motion to suppress. We affirm.

         The defendant contends that his rights under Part I, Article 15 of the New Hampshire Constitution and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were violated. He argues that the trial court erred in not suppressing certain incriminating statements he made during his police station interview. He asserts that the police should have advised him of his Miranda rights because a reasonable person in his position would have believed himself to be in custody. We first address his claim under the State Constitution and rely upon federal law only to aid in our analysis. State v. Ball, 124 N.H. 226, 231-33 (1983).

         "Custody entitling a defendant to Miranda protections requires formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest." State v. Jennings, 155 N.H. 768, 772 (2007) (quotation omitted). "In the absence of formal arrest, we must determine whether a suspect's freedom of movement was sufficiently curtailed by considering how a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have understood the situation." Id. "To determine whether a reasonable person in the defendant's position would believe himself in custody, the trial court should consider the totality of the circumstances of the encounter." Id. (quotation omitted). The relevant factors include the number of officers present, the degree to which the suspect was physically restrained, the interview's duration and character, and the suspect's familiarity with his surroundings. Id. at 773. We will not overturn the trial court's factual findings relating to custody unless they are contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence or erroneous as a matter of law. State v. Ford, 144 N.H. 57, 62 (1999). We review the ultimate determination of custody de novo. Id. at 63.

         The record shows that on October 30, 2014, Nashua police officers Phelps and McConnell went to the defendant's place of employment to speak with him about a reported sexual assault. The defendant requested that the officers return later in the day and meet him at a restaurant across the street. The officers agreed. The officers drove the defendant from the restaurant to the police station because he did not have transportation. They did not conduct a pat-down search or place him in handcuffs. The defendant entered the station through the front lobby, signed in at the reception desk, and was given a visitor's badge. The officers then escorted him to an interview room.

         The defendant does not argue that he was in custody upon arrival at the police station. See State v. Carpentier, 132 N.H. 123, 127 (1989) (concluding that defendant, who came to police station "by his own agreement, without physical restraint, and received police transportation only for his convenience, " was not in custody on arrival at station). Rather, he argues that the "physical restraint" placed upon him during the interview, "coupled with the unyielding accusations in the face of his denials, transformed this initially voluntary interview into a custodial interrogation."

         The record shows that the only physical restraints placed upon the defendant were imposed by, or resulted from, the interview room itself, a small, windowless room with a square table pushed against a wall and three chairs. The trial court found that the room "was barely large enough to fit all three individuals in their chairs around the table." The defendant sat in the chair furthest from the door, and when three persons were in the room, "space was extremely limited." The court also found that "[t]he defendant could not have left the room unless McConnell stood up, pushed his chair under the table, and moved out of the way."

         However, "[t]he determination as to whether the defendant is in custody for purposes of Miranda requires us to analyze the totality of the circumstances, and not to rely on any single factor in isolation." State v. McKenna, 166 N.H. 671, 686 (2014). "[W]e have consistently regarded as a significant factor in our custody analysis whether a suspect is informed that he or she is at liberty to terminate the interrogation." Id. at 680. Here, at the start of the interview, Phelps told the defendant that "at any point you want to stop, say, 'I want to stop, ' and we'll give you a ride back to wherever you need to go." Phelps also asked the defendant to confirm on the record that he was "here voluntarily today, " which he did. To avoid any misunderstanding, she asked him, "What does voluntary mean to you?", and he replied, "It means I'm here on my own free will . . . to answer any of your questions." Nothing in the record shows that the defendant sought to stop answering the officer's questions, or to leave the room, before the police concluded their interview.

         The defendant argues that the character of the interview changed after approximately twenty-five minutes, when Phelps began using accusatory questions and accusatory statements. Shortly after the defendant confirmed that the interview was voluntary, the officer asked him if he knew why the police wanted to speak with him. Although he initially professed to "have no idea, " he quickly admitted, "I had an affair with a girl." The defendant then described his relationship with the victim, whom he met when she was twelve or thirteen. He admitted having sex with her, but initially told the officer that she was sixteen or seventeen when the sexual relationship started. In response to the officer's accusatory questions and accusatory statements, the defendant admitted that the sexual relationship started when the victim was younger.

         The use of accusatory questions and accusatory statements is a factor weighing in favor of a finding of custody. McKenna, 166 N.H. at 681. However, the trial court concluded that although "the interview was, at times, accusatory, it was not so aggressively confrontational as to tip the balance of 'all the relevant factors' in the defendant's favor." The court noted that Phelps "maintained a respectful demeanor at all times, " and that she did not "make physical contact with the defendant or engage in a show of force." Nor did she "act aggressively or raise her voice." These findings are neither contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence nor erroneous as a matter of law. See Ford, 144 N.H. at 62. After considering the totality of the circumstances, and "balancing all of the relevant factors, " McKenna, 166 N.H. at 686, we conclude that the defendant was not in custody during his police interview for purposes of Miranda.

         Because the Federal Constitution offers the defendant no greater protection than does the State Constitution under these circumstances, see State v. Locke, 149 N.H. 1, 7 (2002); Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495 (1977), we reach the same result under the Federal Constitution as we do under the State Constitution.

         Affirmed.

          HICKS, LYNN, and ...


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