“Deceived” suspect’s testimony ruled valid

The following article contains the basic decision made by the Civil Service Commission. Citations were omitted and tenses changed to allow for easier reading. The entire decision may be found by clicking here.

Commonwealth v. Tremblay

On the night of April 27, 2002, a boat parked on a trailer near a lake in Chelmsford was extensively damaged by a fire. Police later determined that the fire had been deliberately set. An investigation led to the indictment of Mark D. Tremblay, the defendant, who was convicted by a Superior Court jury of malicious burning of personal property, damage of property for the purpose of intimidation, and a civil rights violation. On appeal, the defendant claims that the motion judge improperly denied his motion to suppress certain oral statements he made to a State trooper “off the record.”

In April, 2002, a man we shall call Harold Nelson lived in a house near a lake in Chelmsford. Nelson owned a motor boat that he kept on a trailer parked on his lot. The defendant owned the house next door to Nelson’s and, on the evening of April 27, was holding a small party for some friends. At about 11:20 P.M., Nelson’s boat suddenly erupted in flames and was extensively damaged.

Massachusetts State Trooper Peter Cummings, who worked with the fire and explosion section of the State fire marshal’s office, investigated the case and quickly determined that the fire had been intentionally set. As a result of an interview Cummings conducted on May 8, 2002, the defendant became the investigation’s principal target.

At about 4:00 P.M. on May 8, Cummings telephoned the defendant’s home and spoke with his wife, explaining that he wanted to speak to the defendant as part of his investigation. In reply, Ms. Tremblay told Cummings that her husband was at a baseball field, and gave Cummings a cellular telephone number where the defendant could be reached. Cummings telephoned the defendant, identified himself, told the defendant why he was calling and said he would like to meet with him. In response, the defendant said that he had been expecting the call.

Cummings asked where and when the defendant would like to meet, and offered to come to the ballfield. The defendant said that he preferred to meet elsewhere, so Cummings suggested the Chelmsford central fire station and they agreed to meet there in five to ten minutes. As planned, Cummings and his colleague, Chelmsford fire investigator Hank Houle, met the defendant at the fire station a few minutes later. The trooper and the investigator were in an unmarked vehicle and were dressed casually.

In the conference room at the fire station, Cummings told the defendant that he wanted to discuss the boat fire. Cummings also said that he wanted to obtain a written statement from the defendant, and that he would write the statement in the first person for the defendant’s review and signature. The statement, Cummings said, had to contain specifics. Cummings did not tell the defendant that he was a suspect or a target of the investigation. Moreover, having determined that the defendant was not in custody, he did not give the defendant the so-called Miranda warnings.

During the interview, which lasted a little more than one hour, the trooper’s demeanor was sympathetic. The defendant, who was fifty years old at the time, was cooperative and appeared relaxed, focused, and coherent. On multiple occasions, he left the conference room to engage in cellular telephone conversations. The interview included small talk, during the course of which the defendant discussed work he had performed moving equipment for professional sports teams and installing “kill” switches in police cruisers. At one point Cummings told the defendant that he could leave to pick up his son and resume the interview later if he wished, but the defendant decided to stay and finish the interview.

At some point, Cummings asked the defendant if he had any idea who might have been responsible for setting fire to Nelson’s boat. The defendant responded that he “had his suspicions.” When Cummings pressed him to amplify, the defendant said that Cummings probably had heard about the “gay activities” at Nelson’s house. Expressing reluctance to describe those activities in writing, the defendant said that he would prefer to discuss them with Cummings “off the record.” Cummings said, “Fine, … we’ll go off the record.”

Once “off the record,” the defendant, in an agitated narrative during which he used profanities, expressed his anger about “some of the things that he and his wife [had] been subjected to.” He then described some activities of Nelson’s that he claimed to have witnessed, and ended by saying that he did not want his son looking at Nelson and his “lovers kissing out in the hot tub” at the back of Nelson’s house.

As the motion judge noted, after the defendant finished, he agreed, at Cummings’s urging, to include in the written statement “a watered-down description of the so-called ‘gay activities,’ including the purported sexually explicit conduct that occurred in plain view of the defendant’s house.” The defendant also agreed to include in the statement his suspicion that the fire “may have been caused by a lover’s quarrel” between “same-sex partners” who have “frequent arguments.”

The interview ultimately resulted in a five-and-one-half-page handwritten statement that was reviewed by the defendant, Cummings, and Houle. After the defendant signed the statement, Cummings became more confrontational and told the defendant that he did not believe him. Among other things, Cummings asked the defendant about a conversation the defendant hadwith Peter Karlson, one of the guests at the defendant’s party on the night of the fire, in which the defendant told Karlson that he had changed his shirt during the evening because he had spilled gasoline on himself when he lit the boat on fire. The defendant insisted that he did not know what Cummings was talking about. When Cummings asked if he could see the shirt the defendant had been wearing early on the evening of the fire, the defendant said that he assumed the shirt was at his house and offered to produce it, though he never did.

The interview ended shortly after Cummings asked to see the shirt. As it ended, Cummings told the defendant that he was likely to be indicted for arson, and that “now was the time to start telling the truth.” To that, the defendant responded that he had provided all the help he could, and, accompanied by Cummings’s valedictory, “Good luck, you’re going to need it,” he left the fire station.

On June 27, 2002, the defendant was indicted for malicious burning of personal property, in violation of G.L. c. 266, § 5; damage of property for the purpose of intimidation, in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 39; and a civil rights violation under G.L. c. 265, § 37. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the “off-the-record” statements he had made to Cummings. That motion was denied after an evidentiary hearing. In a thorough and careful memorandum of decision, the motion judge, after canvassing and discussing applicable precedent, found that “[w]hile the defendant was likely misled concerning the ultimate use against him of his more offensive description of his neighbor’s alleged sexual preference and conduct, the defendant was voluntarily talking with the investigators before any promise or assurance, and the essence of these comments was voluntarily included in his written statement. Indeed, the fact that the defendant was sufficiently savvy to ensure that the version which was potentially more harmful to himself was not included in the written statement is another indication of the absence of coercion.”

Following a jury trial where the evidence included the “off-the-record” statements, testimony about the defendant’s “off-the-record” request, and testimony about the kind of language the defendant and his friends used when discussing Nelson and his friends, the defendant was found guilty of all three counts of the indictment. On appeal, his sole argument is that the “off-the-record” statements were involuntary and should not have been introduced at the trial.

In assessing the defendant’s claim, the court started with the familiar proposition that a confession or an admission may be admitted as evidence in a criminal trial only if the defendant made the statement voluntarily. In turn, the test for voluntariness is “whether, in light of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the making of the statement, the will of the defendant was overborne to the extent that the statement was not the result of a free and voluntary act.”

“In evaluating the voluntariness of a defendant’s statement, a number of factors are to be considered, including the following: age; education; intelligence; emotional stability; physical and mental condition; conduct of the defendant; who initiated the conversation with the police; experience with and in the criminal justice system; the details of the interrogation, including recitation of Miranda rights; and whether any promises or inducements were made by the police.” As the court reviewed the motion judge’s application of those factors and his ultimate decision, we “accepted the judge’s subsidiary findings of fact absent clear error and leave to the judge the responsibility of determining the weight and credibility to be given oral testimony presented at the motion hearing…. We reviewed independently the application of constitutional principles to the facts found.”

The defendant was fifty years old at the time of questioning, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that he lacked education or intelligence. The record reflects that he was emotionally stable at the time of questioning, and that he had no physical or mental impairments. The defendant’s conduct further indicates that the interview was not coercive. He engaged in personal cellular telephone conversations during the interview, and chose to continue the interview, even after he was given the option to leave, pick up his son, and resume later. As the interview progressed, the defendant and the investigators discussed matters other than the boat fire, including the defendant’s familiarity with several State troopers he had met while installing equipment in police cruisers. The police in this case initiated the conversation, but they did not arrest the defendant during or immediately after the interview. The defendant does not challenge the motion judge’s finding that there was no custodial interrogation, and, consequently, does not argue that he should have received Miranda warnings. Thus, the only basis on which one could possibly conclude that the defendant’s statements were involuntary is that he made them after Cummings told him that he could speak “off the record.”

Even if Cummings’s assertion that the defendant’s statements would be “off the record” was viewed as an exercise in police deception or trickery, the exercise does not make the defendant’s statements involuntary. To be sure, Massachusetts decisions do disapprove of police officers’ use of deception as a tactical device, and acknowledge that deception casts doubt on the voluntariness of statements the deception produces. But “[m]isinformation by the police does not necessarily render a confession involuntary.” Particularly in cases such as this, “where the use of a false statement is the only factor pointing in the direction of involuntariness, it will not ordinarily result in suppression.”

Some forms of police deception or trickery are more likely than others to result in a finding that a statement is involuntary. For example, cases in which an officer “suggest[ed] broadly that it would be ‘better’ for a suspect to tell the truth,” but then told the defendant “that a confession would ‘probably help your defense; in fact, I am sure it would,’ ” Commonwealth v. Meehan, 377 Mass. 552, 564-565 (1979); cases where promises of leniency are combined with false statements about “ostensibly irrefutable evidence of guilt,” see Commonwealth v. DiGiambattista, supra at 439; and cases where police use trickery to obtain a waiver after a defendant has exercised his right to remain silent or have requested counsel, see Commonwealth v. Taylor, 374 Mass. 426, 433 (1978), and Commonwealth v. Jackson, supra at 325-326, are likely to call into question the voluntariness of everything the defendant thereafter says. Here, however, Cummings never gave the defendant a promise of leniency, either express or implied, nor did he trick the defendant into reversing a decision to remain silent or to request counsel.

If and to the extent that Cummings employed trickery with his “off-the-record” assurance, then, the case is similar to others in which, given the totality of the circumstances, the deception did not make the defendant’s statements involuntary. Such cases include those in which the court found a defendant’s statements to be voluntary although police suggested he should “tell ‘his side of the story.’ ” \ Even in cases where police made more egregiously false statements or falsely implied, for example, that a defendant’s fingerprints or handprints were found at a crime scene, the court has found that the defendant’s statements were voluntary in light of the totality of the circumstances. In each case, the question is whether the police conduct coerced the resulting statement, not whether their conduct was congruent with some abstract level of propriety

On this record, none of the motion judge’s factual findings was clearly erroneous and his legal analysis was correct. There is no basis, therefore, for upsetting his ultimate finding that none of the statements the defendant made to Cummings was involuntary, and the motion to suppress was properly denied.

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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