It's Blue! No, It's Red! Either Way, It's Admissible

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A jury convicted Eric Murdock of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Murdock was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) to 216 months in prison. On appeal, Murdock argued that the district court erred by refusing to suppress his statement regarding the color of a bag containing firearms and ammunition.

According to Murdock, the statement should have been suppressed because he was in custody and not given Miranda warnings. The First Circuit disagreed.

Murdock was subject to bail conditions prohibiting him from possessing firearms and requiring him to submit to searches of his home and his person. An agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) contacted South Berwick police officer Jeffrey Pelkey, told him that Murdock may have received some firearms in the mail, and asked Officer Pelkey to ensure that no firearms at Murdock's residence.

Officer Pelkey requested and received a facsimile of the bail bond containing the firearms ban and the requirement that Murdock submit to searches of his home and his person.

During the search -- which lasted 45 minutes to an hour -- Murdock remained on the small front lawn of him home, an area approximately 12 to 15 feet by 20 feet. He spoke to his wife, used his cell phone, sat in a chair, and drank a beverage. He was not handcuffed or restrained, was not told that he could not leave, and was not advised of his Miranda rights. Most of the time, one or two officers remained with Murdock.

In the trunk of a car garaged on the premises, officers found a red overnight bag containing two handguns and ammunition. The bag was given to Officer Pelkey, who carried it from the garage towards the front lawn, holding it on his side so it was not visible to those on the lawn. Officer Pelkey announced that he had found "the blue bag with your weapons in it." Murdock interjected that the bag was red, prompting Officer Pelkey to agree that the bag was red.

For Miranda rights to arise, an individual must be in custody. To ascertain whether someone was in custody for Miranda purposes, a district court "examines the circumstances surrounding the questioning and then it sees whether those circumstances would cause a reasonable person to have understood his situation to be comparable to a formal arrest."

This analysis is guided by several factors, including "where the questioning occurred, the number of officers, the degree of physical restraint, and the duration and character of the interrogation.

The First Circuit of Appeals agreed that Murdock's color commentary was admissible, noting that the familiar surroundings, few officers, lack of physical restraint, short time period, and nature of the verbal exchanges suggested that Murdock was not in custody for Miranda purposes. The fact that Murdock did not receive warning of his Miranda rights, therefore, was not a constitutional violation.

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