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Custodial Interrogation, Admission of Evidence, and De Novo Review

Last week the Supreme Court of Indiana decided the companion cases of B.A. v. State and D.Z. v. State. For the first time, the Court addressed when students are entitled to Miranda warnings in school settings. The two opinions are well-written and provide a clear and helpful framework for deciding this issue of first impression with respect to juveniles. But the opinions are also helpful for adult criminal defendants as well.

How so? The Court once again clarifies that while the admission of evidence of one’s statements is subject to an abuse-of-discretion standard of review on appeal, purely legal issues (such as the one addressed in B.A. and D.Z.) are subject to de novo review. In the past, there has been some confusion among jurists and attorneys on this point. Many erroneously believed that the abuse-of-discretion standard applied to the trial court’s admission of the evidence in general, absent any consideration of whether the issue in dispute was one of fact or of law.

It is imperative that appellate practitioners use the appropriate standard of review. Where the facts relevant to the legal issue being decided are in dispute, on review the appellate court will show great deference to the lower court’s resolution of any dispute regarding what actually occurred (i.e., whether there was one officer in the room versus none, whether the officer’s presence was coercive in nature, etc.). Such factual findings will only constitute an abuse of discretion if there was no evidence or reasonable inferences to support the findings.

But the application of the relevant facts to the law, and the law itself, are subject to de novo review. Whether the trial court applied the incorrect legal standard (in B.A., for example, the lower court incorrectly applied an “educational purpose” exception to Miranda), or whether the lower court erroneously applied the relevant facts to the law, are to be given no deference on appeal. Instead, such matters (if deemed to be erroneous) would always constitute an abuse of discretion, since courts have no discretion in applying the law.

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