Parole agents violated a parolee’s Fifth Amendment rights by interrogating him about new crimes while he was in custody, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Com. v. Cooley, III, __ A.3d __ (No. 10 MAP 2014, filed June 15, 2015). On July 6, 2011, Nathan Cooley, III, went to a scheduled meeting with his parole agent. Cooley was handcuffed, searched for weapons, and informed that agents were going to search his home for firearms and drugs. Agents asked Cooley if they would find firearms in his home; he admitted to having a gun in a drawer under a couch. Upon further questioning later in the encounter, Cooley admitted to having a firearm in his vehicle. From the time of his arrival at the parole office, during the search of his home, and until he returned to the office with the agents, Cooley remained in handcuffs and was never given Miranda warnings. After he was charged with firearms and drug offenses, Cooley sought to suppress the statements he made to the parole agents.
The suppression court denied Cooley’s motion, finding that his detention and questioning by parole agents was not the functional equivalent of arrest. The Superior Court affirmed, holding that Miranda warnings were not required because Cooley’s statements were part of a parole interview rather than a custodial interrogation.
On review, the Supreme Court held that Cooley was subject to custodial interrogation, such that the parole agents’ failure to issue Miranda warnings violated his Fifth Amendment rights. Writing for the majority, Justice Eakin reiterated that the Fifth Amendment is self-executing where an individual, including a parolee, is subject to custodial interrogation without receiving Miranda warnings. As to the dispositive issue – whether Cooley was in custody – the Court observed that the parole agents kept Cooley handcuffed during the encounter, even after a search of his person turned up nothing; accused him of crimes for which he was not on parole; and did not discuss his parole. Because the agents’ interrogation and search of Cooley’s property was clearly aimed at new crimes, their conduct was the functional equivalent of that of police officers. The majority further held that the suppression court’s error was not harmless because the Commonwealth offered no evidence on that issue. Accordingly, the Court vacated Cooley’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that Cooley was in custody during his encounter with the parole agents. Justice Stevens emphasized that Cooley’s pre-arranged meeting was voluntary and occurred in a setting and with a parole agent that were familiar to him. Although Cooley was handcuffed for the parole agent’s safety, there was no indication the agent insinuated the interrogation would continue until Cooley confessed, nor was there any aggressive, confrontational show of force. In Justice Stevens’ view, the use of handcuffs did not transform a non-custodial parole interview into the functional equivalent of an arrest for Miranda purposes.