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Gupta v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 24, 2017

RAHUL GUPTA
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: December 5, 2016

         Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 124077C

          Barbera, C.J. Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Hotten, Getty, Rodowsky, Lawrence F. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Getty, J.

         In this case we are asked to determine whether a trial judge's ex parte communication with a juror violated Maryland Rule 4-326(d)(2) and, if so, whether such violation was harmless. In addition, we must determine whether a suspect can invoke his right to counsel under Miranda[1] by demanding to see a lawyer while in a holding cell before interrogation begins.

         For the reasons that follow, we conclude that although the trial judge did violate Rule 4-326(d)(2), that error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, we hold that the Petitioner did not invoke his Miranda right to counsel by demanding to see a lawyer from his holding cell before being interrogated, and therefore the circuit court did not err in denying the Petitioner's motion to suppress the statements he made to detectives during his interrogation. Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

         BACKGROUND

         A. The Murder

         On Saturday, October 12, 2013, Petitioner Rahul Gupta and his girlfriend, Taylor Gould, went out to dinner in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. to celebrate Mr. Gupta's twenty-fourth birthday. After dinner, the couple walked to a nearby bar, where they met up with two of Mr. Gupta's friends-Mark Waugh and Josh White. Approximately an hour later, the group moved to another nearby bar, at which point they split up into pairs. Mr. Gupta went outside with Mr. White, while Mr. Waugh remained inside the bar with Ms. Gould. Mr. Gupta testified that he went outside with Mr. White to smoke marijuana. He also testified that, during this time, Mr. White told Mr. Gupta that he thought Ms. Gould was flirting with him. Meanwhile, inside the bar, Ms. Gould confided in Mr. Waugh that she felt like Mr. White was hitting on her, and it was making her uncomfortable.

         Later, after the group had moved to a third bar, Mr. Waugh confronted Mr. Gupta about the situation between Ms. Gould and Mr. White, telling Mr. Gupta that Mr. White was "trying to make a move on" Ms. Gould. Mr. White denied the accusation, and decided at that time to return to his apartment in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Mr. Gupta and Ms. Gould also decided to call it a night, and the couple took a taxi back to the apartment they shared in Silver Spring, Maryland, accompanied by Mr. Waugh.

         Surveillance cameras in the Silver Spring apartment building show that the trio arrived at 1:50 a.m. on Sunday, October 13, 2013. Once inside the apartment, they took shots of vodka, Mr. Gupta smoked more marijuana, and all three sat on the couch and began playing video games. At some point, there was another discussion about whether there had been any flirting between Ms. Gould and Mr. White earlier in the night. Ms. Gould testified that Mr. Waugh helped her confront Mr. Gupta about the perceived flirting by Mr. White, while Mr. Gupta testified that Mr. Waugh did not believe Ms. Gould's accusation that Mr. White was "hitting on her."

         Both Mr. Gupta and Ms. Gould claimed that they could not clearly remember the events following this discussion, as both had been drinking heavily throughout the night. But at 3:25 a.m., Ms. Gould called 911 at Mr. Gupta's direction. She told the operator that "my friend is . . . here and I need emergency right now, " that "he's not breathing, " and that "there's blood everywhere." When the operator asked Ms. Gould what had happened, she relayed the question to Mr. Gupta, and then responded to the operator, "I don't know what happened."

         Police officers arrived at the apartment at 3:36 a.m., and encountered a "very intoxicated" Ms. Gould at the front door. She repeated to the officer that she did not know what happened, and they placed her in handcuffs and detained her outside the apartment. The officers who entered the apartment found Mr. Gupta groaning and covered in blood, lying on the floor just to the left of Mr. Waugh's body. When the officers asked Mr. Gupta what happened, he responded, "They were cheating. My girlfriend was cheating on me. My buddy and my girlfriend were cheating. I walked in on my buddy and my girlfriend cheating. I killed my buddy." Medical technicians on the scene confirmed that Mr. Waugh was dead. The medical examiner testified that Mr. Waugh had six stab wounds and five "cutting injuries." Police recovered an eight-inch kitchen knife, identified as the murder weapon, from under Mr. Waugh's leg.

         B. The Interrogation and Suppression Hearing

         Police officers transported Mr. Gupta and Ms. Gould, separately, to the Major Crimes Division of the Montgomery County Police Department. Once there, they placed Mr. Gupta in a holding cell to await interrogation. In the holding cell, at 5:05 a.m., Mr. Gupta screamed at Officer Andrew Richardson, who was stationed nearby to keep an eye on Mr. Gupta, that he was "going to sue the shit out of all of you." Mr. Gupta also pounded on the door of his cell, and screamed-two to three times-"I want a lawyer." Approximately ten to thirty minutes later, according to Officer Richardson's estimate, Detectives Paula Hamill and Kathy Fumagalli arrived to speak with Mr. Gupta and Ms. Gould. Officer Richardson relayed to the detectives Mr. Gupta's request for a lawyer. At the suppression hearing, Detective Fumagalli testified that she remembered receiving this information, while Detective Hamill testified that she did not remember learning that Mr. Gupta had requested a lawyer.

         The detectives spoke to Ms. Gould first. Then, at 8:10 a.m., they moved Mr. Gupta from the holding cell into an interview room and began questioning him. After answering some preliminary questions about his background and current state of mind, Detective Hamill read Mr. Gupta his Miranda rights and asked him whether he understood those rights. Mr. Gupta responded, "Yes." After about eight seconds of silence, Mr. Gupta asked, "When do I get to talk . . ., " before Detective Hamill interrupted him by stating, "Okay, do you . . . here's the deal. We're just trying to find out what the heck happened. You know what I mean?" Mr. Gupta cooperated with the detectives and answered their questions throughout the fifty-five-minute interrogation, and did not request to see or speak to a lawyer until approximately one hour after the interrogation had ended. At trial, the State questioned Mr. Gupta on cross-examination regarding some of the statements he had made during the interrogation. The statements themselves were not admitted into evidence.

         The State charged Mr. Gupta with first- and second-degree murder in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Prior to trial, Mr. Gupta filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to police officers on the morning of his arrest. Specifically, and relevant to this appeal, Mr. Gupta argued that the statements he made while being interrogated by Detectives Hamill and Fumagalli should be suppressed because they were obtained in violation of his right to have counsel present during questioning under Miranda. Mr. Gupta asserted that his demands to see a lawyer while he was in the holding cell awaiting interrogation were made "in the context of custodial interrogation" or when interrogation was "imminent." Upon learning of these requests, the detectives were required to cease questioning until Mr. Gupta had a chance to speak with a lawyer. Therefore, Mr. Gupta concluded, any statements he made to the detectives during the interrogation must be suppressed as being obtained in violation of his Miranda right to counsel.

         Following a suppression hearing on July 30 and 31, 2014, the circuit court denied Mr. Gupta's motion to suppress. The court found that Mr. Gupta had requested a lawyer "two to four times . . . while in custody before interrogation took place, " and that "that communication was passed along to the detectives, " or at least to Detective Fumagalli, by Officer Richardson. However, the court concluded that these demands did not equate to an invocation of the right to counsel under Miranda, because they were made prior to interrogation. Furthermore, the court found that Mr. Gupta was advised of his Miranda rights, "that he made a knowing and intelligent waiver" of those rights, and that he "did not assert at all, let alone without equivocation, a desire to have counsel present."

         C. The Trial

         Mr. Gupta's trial began on Monday, March 2, 2015. During jury selection, the court advised the potential jurors that the trial was scheduled to "take eight days to try to completion, " meaning it would likely last until Wednesday of the following week, March 11. The court asked if anyone would be unable to serve during that time due to a substantial personal or financial hardship. Prospective Juror 18A, along with many others, responded in the affirmative. When questioned individually about her response, Juror 18A explained that she works "for a very small non-profit, so [her] absence for an extended period of time will be difficult." Additionally, she stated that she had "two children at home and no child care, " so she would "be in a position to try to find somebody to look after" them during the trial.

         These answers, along with the fact that Juror 18A stated that she was social friends with defense counsel's partner, caused the court concern. The court then asked if there would be any objection to striking this juror, to which the State responded, "No." Defense counsel did object, however, and stated that "she's a good juror." Juror 18A remained on the jury panel, and ultimately became a member of Mr. Gupta's jury.

         On Thursday, March 5, the circuit court was closed due to snow. At the close of proceedings on Friday, March 6, the court told the jury that the trial was taking longer than originally expected. Thus, the court told the jurors to prepare to serve until the following Friday, March 13, and, "out of an abundance of caution, some days after that." The court instructed the jurors to make the court aware when they returned the following Monday if they foresaw any potential conflicts with serving during that period of time.

         On Monday, March 9, during an afternoon recess, the court informed the parties that Juror 18A had raised a potential conflict with continuing to serve beyond the end of that week:

THE COURT: [Juror 18A] had mentioned to us, I think during voir dire that she had a conflict with next Saturday.
[THE STATE]: Oh she started to raise her hand at the tail end of the testimony yesterday [sic].
THE COURT: Yes, so she had mentioned to my law clerk, you know how do things look? Or she was concerned because she's a keynote speaker at a conference in Las Vegas and she's leaving on Saturday. So she's brought up about 3 or 4 times so I just had my law clerk-did you tell her what I told you? I just said tell her that we'll deal with it on Friday. That we're not going to stand in the way of her going to her conference. My intention is that maybe we'll be done, maybe not. If we're not we'll just see how we look on Friday and we have everybody, all 14 still going, my thought would be we can talk about this more later if you want to talk about it. My thought would be to tell her to go to Las Vegas, do your thing. Come Monday morning excuse her once we know that we've got at least 12 or 13 people left-
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Do we know how long she's going to be there?
THE COURT: --and if we find out Monday morning that we're in trouble without her, we may end up having to skip a few days. She's coming back on Wednesday. So the worst case scenario, rather than have a mistrial we'll just skip a couple of days.
[THE STATE]: Have them continue deliberation assuming they started something on a Wednesday instead of on a Monday.
THE COURT: Yes, well I don't know that we need to keep her on if we're going into deliberations. I'm just saying if we're still in trial-
[THE STATE]: If we're still presenting evidence?
THE COURT: I'm really giving you a heads up mainly to tell you about the communication that my clerk told her you know, this won't keep you from going to Las Vegas for your conference, okay.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Thank you.
[DEFENSE CO-COUNSEL]: Thank you.

         At the close of proceedings on Wednesday, March 11, the court had another conversation with the parties regarding Juror 18A. One of the parties[2] asked the court about its plans for the juror assuming the trial continued beyond that Friday. The court thought there was a "really good chance that deliberations are going to carry over until Monday, " and stated that Juror 18A would not be deliberating if the deliberations started on Friday. Defense counsel stated that he did not want "to cut her, " and proposed postponing deliberations until Juror 18A returned from her conference. The court responded that the juror's keynote speech was on Monday, and she would not return until Wednesday. The court told the parties, "I wouldn't hold my breath on her being on the jury."

         On Thursday, March 12 at 3:00 p.m., Juror 18A sent a note to the court again expressing her concern that she would not be able to serve on the jury the following Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. The juror also stated in her note, "After investing 2 weeks in this trial, I would like to see it through but certainly understand if I am excused." The court notified the parties of this note on the morning of Friday, March 13, before delivering jury instructions and hearing closing arguments. After reading the contents of the note on the record, the court stated its reaction: "I think it is inappropriate to compel her to forego her presentations. So I'm prepared to find that she is unable to perform her service and to place the first alternate in her place. Does anybody need to discuss that briefly?" Defense counsel asked to discuss the situation, and stated that Juror 18A should not be excused. Defense counsel ...


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