Lall: Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Holds Confession Involuntary In Federal Criminal Case in Which State Police Had Told Defendant He Wouldn’t Be Charged

Last Friday, the Eleventh Circuit, which hears federal appeals here in Atlanta, Georgia, reversed Lance Lall’s conviction for credit card fraud related offenses. Although Lall was Mirandized and arguably not in custody, the Court held that his confessions were not voluntarily given, in violation of the Due Process Clause. The investigating officer had told Lall that he would not pursue charges against him.

The case began with an armed robbery at the home of twenty-year-old Lall, his parents, and his siblings. The robbers said they were searching for money and equipment owned by Lance Lall. The detectives interrogated Lall in his bedroom, telling him and his family that information he shared would not be used to prosecute him. Lall showed the detectives the equipment he used to commit identity theft and explained how each device worked. Within hours, a detective alerted the Secret Service to the evidence. Several days later, the detective called Lall in to the police station, telling him he would not need a lawyer and that he would not charge him with this. Lall was ultimately arrested by the Secret Service and tried in federal court.

The Court first analyzed the statement given in Lall’s bedroom. The Court held that the detective’s statement that he would not pursue charges was misleading and undermined the Miranda warnings he initially gave, but did not resolve the issue of whether Lall was in custody for that statement. Instead, the Court analyzed the case using the Due Process Clause, holding that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated that Lall’s statements were involuntarily given. Factual misrepresentations are not enough to render a confession involuntary. However, the deceptive promises made by the detectives here were so egregious as to make the subsequent statements involuntary. In addition, “[i]t is inconceivable that Lall, an uncounseled twenty-year-old, understood at the time that a promise by [the state police detective] that he was not going to pursue any charges did not preclude the use of the confession in a federal prosecution.”

The Court held that the same analysis applied to the second statement given by Lall at the police station, with discussion regarding whether that issue had been properly preserved for review. The Court also held that the physical evidence derived from the statements in Lall’s bedroom should have been suppressed. Although the items were in plain view, the detective admitted that he did not know what the credit card fraud equipment was without Lall’s explanation.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in U.S. v. Lall is available here.