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Vargas-Salguero v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 1, 2018


          Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT141464X

          Nazarian, Reed, Beachley, JJ.


          Nazarian, J.

         Craig Kettleman: I just think I'd look guilty if I hired a lawyer.

James McGill: No, actually it's getting arrested that makes people look guilty, even the innocent ones, and innocent people get arrested everyday. And they find themselves in a little room with a detective who acts like he's their best friend. "Talk to me, " he says, "Help me clear this thing up. You don't need a lawyer, only guilty people need lawyers" and BOOM! Hey, that's when it all goes south. That's when you want someone in your corner. Someone who will fight tooth and nail.[1]

         We all know (from television, if nowhere else) that a person in custodial interrogation has the right to ask for counsel and that once that right is invoked, questioning must stop. The issue in this case is whether Mynor Vargas-Salguero invoked his right to counsel during questioning by Prince George's County detectives, and specifically whether the words he used conveyed that request with sufficient clarity and without ambiguity. The Circuit Court for Prince George's County found his words ambiguous, and, after a trial, he was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, and theft. He argues on appeal that his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated when detectives continued questioning him after he invoked his rights to counsel and to remain silent. We hold Mr. Vargas-Salguero invoked his Fifth (not Sixth) Amendment rights when, under these circumstances, officers continued to question him after he asked (in Spanish) for a lawyer, and we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the night of September 2, 2014, Miguel Barillas (the "victim") was killed in Langley Park by a single stab wound to the chest. While investigating the murder, detectives discovered that Mr. Barillas's phone had been taken immediately before or right after the murder. Police tracked the phone to Jose Ventura, who explained that a man approached him and offered to sell it for $100. Mr. Ventura declined the offer, but loaned the man $100 and held the phone as collateral. The man gave Mr. Ventura his phone number so that he could retrieve the phone from Mr. Ventura later. That number belonged to Mr. Vargas-Salguero.

         The police looked at the phone's call history and discovered a call to Glenda Matute, an acquaintance of Mr. Vargas-Salguero, that had been placed after the victim had died. When questioned, Ms. Matute told officers that Mr. Vargas-Salguero had called her late at night on September 2nd and offered to sell her the victim's phone. Ms. Matute and another eyewitness, Hugo Cordon, also identified Mr. Vargas-Salguero as the aggressor in an altercation between Mr. Vargas-Salguero and the victim; they said that Mr. Vargas-Salguero appeared to "punch" the victim before the men walked off in separate directions.[2]

         Detectives obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Vargas-Salguero early in the morning on September 6, 2014. The statement of charges included first-degree murder, robbery, armed robbery, and carrying a dangerous weapon with the intent to injure. They arrested him and brought him to an interrogation room, then began questioning him at about 2:45 a.m.

         Before describing the interrogation itself, though, a little context. Mr. Vargas-Salguero's first language is Spanish and he speaks some English. Two of the detectives interrogating Mr. Vargas-Salguero (Detectives Deleon and Rodriguez) spoke English and Spanish, and one (Detective Bellino) spoke only English. Most of the interrogation took place in Spanish, and the Spanish-speaking detectives occasionally translated or summarized for Detective Bellino. At times, though, Detective Bellino questioned Mr. Vargas-Salguero in English, and at other times Mr. Vargas-Salguero responded to them in English. The excerpts of the interrogation that follow come, except where otherwise noted, from the transcript prepared by the police, as they translated the discussion, but we have italicized the portions spoken in Spanish and added some further annotations to synchronize the transcripts with the actual interrogation as recorded on video. At the suppression hearing we discuss later, the circuit court had access to the video as well as the translated transcripts.

         During the initial part of the questioning, Mr. Vargas-Salguero revealed that he had drunk alcohol and smoked marijuana the previous night, but he assured the detectives that he was sober as they spoke. Detective Deleon advised Mr. Vargas-Salguero of his Miranda[3] rights in Spanish. When asked if he understood his rights, Mr. Vargas-Salguero responded that he understood them perfectly. The detectives then asked Mr. Vargas-Salguero where he had been on the night of the murder, and told him (despite the arrest warrant) that he was not being accused of anything. Mr. Vargas-Salguero initially denied being in Langley Park that night, but eventually admitted that he'd gone there to buy marijuana after work. He described (in Spanish) what happened next:

[DETECTIVE DELEON]: And after what did you do? When you smoked that joint that night?
A: Open the door and get my ass in the house cause I know how to hot this shit.
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: Okay, and then what happened?
A: What do you mean what happened?
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: Once you went inside the house, what happened?
A: Sleep, like always.
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: And what time did you wake up?
A: I wake up-didn't I just tell you?
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: No, the other day. Or I don't know if it's your day off.
A: Excuse me but, you can ask me and repeat what you like and I'll answer how it is, okay? Because I don't owe you and haven't done anything to anyone. Okay? At 4:30 my sister gets up to (make) lunch. Okay?
A: At 4:30 I get up, sometimes I shower in the afternoon or sometimes I shower in the morning. Okay? So, you know, I get up at 4:30…
A: Not every day.
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: That's why I asked you.
A: Sometimes I get up at 4:30 when I take a shower.
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: Okay. Tha-that's why I asked you.
A: At 5:30 my ride wakes me up, there at the house where I live-lived right now with my sister, that I just moved in.
A: And I go to work. That's all I have to say to you. And if you accuse me of something I better want an attorney. (underlining added).

         That, at least, is how the police transcript translated this last sentence-in Spanish, he said "si me acusan de eso quiero un abogado mejor, " and what he actually meant when he said it lies at the heart of this case.[4]

         After the following short, non-substantive back-and-forth that switched between languages, detectives left the room for about three minutes:

[DETECTIVE DELEON]: We're not-okay.
A: Try to put me in jail. It doesn't matter. Pay for something I haven't done. That's fine. I feel clean and happy in my heart. I don't need to hurt anyone, that's why I work. That's why I earn my own money, (unintelligible) the rent and I'm clear that it's always me paying my rent where I lived before with my wife.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: Why are you so angry, man?
A: No I'm not angry 'cause…I'm sorry, man.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: We're not coming at you like that, man.
A: I'm sorry man. Forgive me.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: Don't be angry, man.
A: That's the way I am, brother. I'm sorry I know you're not my brother, but that's the way I am. I'm sorry. Okay I'm not…
[DETECTIVE DELEON]: Okay. We'll be right back. When they returned, Mr. Vargas-Salguero was crying and emotionally distraught. Detective Bellino asked Mr. Vargas-Salguero if he was "all right, " to which he answered, rhetorically, "[h]ow do you think I feel?" So the Detective offered, "Listen, if you - if you want to talk to me, I'm willing to talk, " then laid down surveillance photos from the night of the murder on the table where Mr. Vargas-Salguero could see them:
A: Right. Ask me whatever you want.
A: People confuse me and-this has to be this way, man.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: Hold up, just a moment ago you said you wanted a lawyer but[5] you're willing to talk to us right now, right?
A: Yeah because I don't have no problem.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: And you understand you have the right to remain silent, you understand you have the right to have an attorney, but you're willing to talk to us correct?
A: I want to fix it. I want to fix it.

         Shortly after this exchange, Mr. Vargas-Salguero confirmed that it was he in the surveillance photos. A bit later in the interview, Mr. Vargas-Salguero stated he had nothing else to say, and this time the detectives were the first to speak:

A: In what moment did - did - I don't want to say anything else now. Because I have nothing else to say. I have nothing else to tell you. Me, killing a poor man. (unintelligible.)
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: Go ahead here.
A: There, what? Go ahead, what? What you got in there? What do you say? I don't see anything there. Nothing.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: Look are you willing to talk to us? I thought you said you didn't want to talk.[6] Do you want to talk to me? Are you willing to talk to me?
A: Yeah.
[DETECTIVE BELLINO]: All right because, you know. Here's the thing, first of all, you want to talk to me I'll repeat everything I already explained to you, you have the right to a lawyer, you have the right to remain silent, you're willing to speak to me, is that right?
A: Yeah because I don't have any.

         And the words alone don't paint a complete picture of what was happening in the interrogation room. Mr. Vargas-Salguero's statements in Spanish that he had nothing else to say ("In what moment did - did - I don't want to say anything else now. Because I have nothing else to say. I have nothing else to tell you.") were not translated by Detective DeLeon for Detective Bellino. At that point, Detective DeLeon pushed away from the table ("Here.") to allow Detective Bellino to lean over and continue speaking to him, at which point he said, in English, "Look are you willing to talk to us? I thought you said you didn't want to talk. Do you want to talk to me?"

         From there, the interrogation continued, and over the course of the next two hours, Mr. Vargas-Salguero's story changed. He eventually admitted to knowing the victim through neighborhood pick-up soccer games. He also admitted that he had been in Langley Park that night buying drugs, but hadn't returned home right away. Instead, he drank with an acquaintance named Chano, who gave him the victim's cell phone. Later, Mr. Vargas-Salguero admitted that he took the phone himself, but claimed that the victim was passed out drunk or sleeping at the time. Finally, Mr. Vargas-Salguero confessed that he'd approached the victim who "was just there sitting" and said, "Give me your phone." The victim apparently "tried to go off running" but Mr. Vargas-Salguero "push[ed] him down." Then, he "took it away from [the victim], [I] hit him once, he fell, I grabbed the phone and left." Mr. Vargas-Salguero stated that he thought he made a call on the victim's phone, but couldn't remember to whom.

         Mr. Vargas-Salguero was charged by criminal indictment with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and carrying a dangerous weapon openly with intent to injure. Before trial, he moved in limine to suppress the statements he made to the detectives in the early morning interview on September 6th. He argued that his statements to the detectives were not knowing and voluntary and that the detectives violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. The transcript of Mr. Vargas-Salguero's interrogation was prepared in English by one of the detectives who conducted the interview and was admitted without objection at the hearing on the motion to suppress. The detectives who conducted Mr. Vargas-Salguero's initial interview also testified in person.

         At the hearing, Mr. Vargas-Salguero focused primarily on challenging the voluntariness of his confession due to his alcohol and drug use the night before. He also asked the detectives about his request for an attorney. The detectives were provided with copies of the transcript and viewed relevant portions of the interview video. Detective DeLeon claimed that Mr. Vargas-Salguero hadn't been under arrest at the time he was questioned, but acknowledged that they had given him Miranda warnings all the same. Detective DeLeon also acknowledged that Mr. Vargas-Salguero had mentioned an attorney at least once during their interview, but said that it hadn't been clear to him that Mr. Vargas- Salguero was requesting one:

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Okay. And is it fair to say each time the word attorney came out of his mouth, he was not Mirandized and you continued to ask questions?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Which part is ...

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