Appellate Deference & Video Evidence: Part 2

by | Jul 15, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures, Monmouth County, Ocean County

The interrogation proceeded, and defendant continued to suggest that he did not want to speak. Eventually, he indicated that “it happened” when, after a shower, he was drying himself and his daughter entered the bathroom.

In ruling on the motion, the trial court relied solely on its review of the video-recorded interrogation. Because it found that defendant invoked his right to remain silent under Miranda when he said, “No, that’s all I got to say. That’s it,” the court entered an order suppressing all statements made after that point in the interrogation.

The Appellate Division granted the prosecution’s motion for leave to appeal, and a two-member panel reversed the trial court’s order. The panel noted that it defers to a “trial court’s findings of fact that are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record” when the suppression hearing involves the taking of witness testimony. The panel stated, however, that such deference is not required when “the trial court’s factual findings are based only on its viewing of a recorded interrogation that is equally available to the appellate court.” Relying on the case of State v. Diaz-Bridges, the panel engaged in a de novo review of the video-recorded interrogation. The panel determined that, based on its “independent review of the video,” the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant never revoked his initial waiver of his right to remain silent.

The New Jersey Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion for leave to appeal and held that after a careful reappraisal of Diaz-Bridges, the Court now holds that the non-deferential standard articulated in that case is at odds with traditional principles limiting appellate review. An appellate court ordinarily should defer to a trial court’s factual findings, even when those findings are based solely on its review of a video recording. Deference, however, is not required when the trial court’s factual findings are clearly mistaken. Here, sufficient credible evidence in the record supports the factual finding that defendant invoked his right to silence during the interrogation.

Although the prosecution lost this appeal, the decision will likely end up benefiting the state more than the accused. This is because defendants generally get fairer on treatment from an appellate panel conducting a de novo review than a trial court conducting a de novo review. A principle reason for this is that the opinions of appellate judges are published on the internet and their intellectual honesty is subject to far greater scrutiny than a trial court’s.