By Roselyn Poommai
SACRAMENTO, CA – How awake is awake? That was the big question here in Sacramento County Superior Court Monday in a motion to suppress hearing for defendant Dominic Coates—facing 15 felonies and misdemeanors, including theft, burglary and assorted other vehicle code and other charges.
On Monday, Coates and his defense team appeared in court for a motion to suppress the evidence obtained through his recorded interview, claiming he was not in the right state of mind.
The interview recording allegedly shows Coates sleeping on the interrogation room floor and chair for some time before the detective came in.
The defendant reportedly “had not slept in potentially more than 24 hours” and was “addicted to heroin and under the influence of heroin at that time.” His fiancée could also be heard “crying and screaming through the walls” for him from the room next door.
Det. Christopher Robertson, a sworn peace officer for approximately six years and a detective for almost a year at the time, interviewed Coates one night for a robbery investigation. During his years, Robertson has only encountered approximately four suspects who repeatedly dozed off during the recitation of their Miranda rights.
Though he stopped all four of those interviews, that was not the case for defendant Coates, he said, who struggled to stay awake, said the detective.
“Could you describe Mr. Coates’s behavior and demeanor when you first attempted to interview him on October 3?” asked Deputy District Attorney Sterling Wilkins.
Det. Robertson answered that Coates “was asleep” when he and his partner initially entered the interview room. The pair struggled to wake the “very groggy” defendant and repeatedly called his name, attempting to “wake him up several times.”
To determine whether the defendant could consciously and adequately move forward with the interview, Robertson asked baseline biographical questions about his background.
He determined that Coates was “answering appropriately” and proceeded to state the defendant’s Miranda rights.
However, when enunciating them, Robertson noticed that “he [Coates] nodded off during that initial run-through of those questions” and questioned the defendant’s ability to waive his rights.
Det. Robertson then repeated the list of rights, making sure to pause to give Coates the chance to respond to them individually.
“Did he affirmatively respond that he understood each of those rights as you read them?” asked DDA Wilkins.
Robertson responded, “He did. On the last one, I felt like he started to nod off again, so I reread that last right to him, and he responded appropriately.”
Det. Robertson indicated that Coates used a combination of head nods and verbal agreements to express his understanding of the current situation. He also noted that the defendant was “open and willing” to discuss the case in a “logical and coherent” manner.
Robertson further elaborated that Coates “became more alert” and was “answering coherently” as the interview proceeded.
DDA Wilkins asked the detective why he felt that Coates’s attention was returning.
“Just the fact that we didn’t have to say his name or try to wake him up as much. He was able to respond right away to the questions we were asking, and he made sense and was answering intelligently,” explained Robertson.
“Did you observe anything that made you believe that he was unconscious or dreaming or not fully aware of what was taking place?” asked Wilkins.
Robertson indicated that he did not, and clarified that no aggressive verbal or physical coercion took place for Coates’s participation.
During the cross-examination, court-appointed defense attorney Miranda Delaini questioned Det. Robertson about his prior experience with similar situations.
“How many [suspects] did you actually have to awaken during the advisement of the Miranda rights?” she asked.
Robertson replied, “I estimate no less than 10 that were sleeping due to being under the influence,” four of which he ceased interviews after they continued to doze off.
Delaini clarified, “When you interviewed Mr. Coates, he had been sleeping in the Sheriff’s department interrogation room and was sleeping for some time and was sleeping rather hard, correct? It was difficult for you to wake him up?”
Robertson agreed and was “admittedly concerned” about the defendant’s competency when he appeared to nod off on hearing the last Miranda right. However, he did not offer the defendant a chance to recollect himself and re-hear his rights.
Defender Delaini then compared the significance of the initial baseline questions to his Miranda rights. “Is asking biographical questions different from the exercise or waiver of your legal rights?”
The detective responded that the defendant’s manner and ability to “appropriately answer” the baseline questions “go into the assessment of whether or not he can knowingly ignore his Miranda rights.”
“Did you offer Mr. Coates the ability to drink some water and walk around to help wake himself up?” pressed Delaini. Robertson indicated that they gave him water after placing him in the interview room and offered him a chance to “stand up” after informing him of his Miranda rights.
However, he testified that Coates “was not able to stand up” due to his state at the time. Neither Robertson nor his partner stopped the interview, which lasted approximately half an hour.
The defense pointed out that interviewing a suspect while they are sober is drastically different.
“Would you also agree that it would’ve been better to wait to speak to Mr. Coates when he was not under the combined influence of a lack of sleep, being under the influence and addicted to heroin, and being in his emotional state because his fiancée was screaming and crying at him through the room next door?” defense counsel queried.
“That would’ve been better as far as his cognitive functions,” Robertson recognized.
Before adjourning the court, Judge Kevin McCormick posed a final question to the detective, asking, “You indicated that there are other circumstances that would’ve made it more ideal in terms of interviewing the defendant, such as waiting until he was more sober or had a greater deal of sleep. Why didn’t you?”
Robertson explained that having both robbery suspects in custody, in addition to his impression that Coates was alert, compelled him to continue the investigation “even though it might’ve been ideal to wait until later as far as his level of awareness.”
The judge is expected to rule on the motion soon.
Roselyn is a second-year undergraduate double-majoring in Psychological Science and Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine. A native of Los Angeles, California, she is passionate about the role of human behavior in the criminal justice system.
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