Appellate Deference & Video Evidence: Part 4

by | Jul 19, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures, Monmouth County, Ocean County

The Court rejects the de novo standard introduced in Diaz-Bridges. A policy of deferring to findings of fact of a trial court based on its review of video and documentary evidence has certain tangible benefits. When more than one reasonable inference can be drawn from the review of a video recording, a trial court’s factual conclusions reached by drawing permissible inferences cannot be clearly mistaken, and the mere substitution of an appellate court’s judgment for that of the trial court’s advances no greater good. Permitting appellate courts to substitute their factual findings for equally plausible trial court findings is likely to “undermine the legitimacy of the trial courts in the eyes of litigants, multiply appeals by encouraging appellate retrial of some factual issues, and needlessly reallocate judicial authority.” All this analysis is self-serving to the extent it lightens the workload for the Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court. Acknowledging that a trial court’s factual findings are entitled to deference does not mean that appellate courts must give blind deference to those findings. Deference ends when a trial court’s factual findings are not supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.

It was probably an overstatement that the Diaz-Bridges rule “undermined the legitimacy of trial courts in the eyes of litigants.” A more accurate statement would be that the rule confirmed what most litigants believe:  our higher court judges tend to be a little bit smarter than lower trial court judges as a whole. That is the way it should be if they are going to decide the precedents that the lower courts are required to follow.

Under the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fifth Amendment, the police are required to stop a custodial interrogation when a suspect unambiguously asserts his right to remain silent. In contrast, under New Jersey’s privilege against self-incrimination, a request, however ambiguous, to terminate questioning must be diligently honored. If the police are uncertain whether a suspect has invoked his right to remain silent, two alternatives are presented: (1) terminate the interrogation or (2) ask only those questions necessary to clarify whether the defendant intended to invoke his right to silence. Words like those used by defendant here have been considered sufficient to invoke the right to silence.

The trial court concluded that, based on its review of the entire video-recorded interrogation, “defendant unambiguously invoked his right to silence” from the point he stated, “that’s all I got to say.” The Appellate Division followed the guidance given in Diaz-Bridges and substituted its interpretation of the video in place of the trial court’s reasoned analysis. The trial court’s factual conclusions are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record and therefore are not clearly mistaken. The Court affirms the trial court’s suppression order. After defendant said, “No, that’s all I got to say. That’s it,” his statements are inadmissible.

The judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed. The matter is remanded to the trial court for proceedings consisted with this opinion.