The Federalist Society

Michigan Supreme Court Finds Confession of 18-Year-Old Inadmissible

March 21, 2024

(The Federalist Society)—The Michigan Supreme Court’s recent decision in People v. Stewart revisits the longstanding debate about when police interrogation tactics overstep the constitutional line. For the majority, Chief Justice Elizabeth T. Clement wrote that the statements of an 18-year-old defendant were involuntary and therefore inadmissible.

In May 2016, then-18-year-old Joshua Stewart allegedly served as the getaway driver for a pair of armed robberies in Detroit. During the robbery and subsequent shootout, a perpetrator, Deontea White, and two robbery victims were shot. [1] Stewart arrived at the hospital with White in a “bullet-riddled” Dodge sedan. [2] When officers questioned Stewart, he insisted that he had nothing to do with the crimes. Rather, he said, he had found White in the back seat of the Dodge and driven him to the hospital as a Good Samaritan. [3] A victim’s brother identified the Dodge as the shooter’s vehicle and Stewart’s white T-shirt as matching the shirt worn by the driver. [4] Officers interrogated Stewart into the wee hours of the morning. He admitted to serving as the driver of the Dodge during the robberies, but denied knowing that the defendants were armed and intended to commit the robberies. [5]

Stewart was charged and unsuccessfully moved to suppress the confession on grounds that it was coerced. [6] The jury acquitted him of felony murder, but found him guilty of various assault and robbery counts. [7] The Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal on the issue of whether Stewart’s confession “was not voluntary because the interrogating officers employed overly coercive tactics, including promises of leniency.” [8]

The Michigan Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, bars the use of involuntary statements at trial. [9] If police employ coercive tactics to elicit a confession, the coerced statements must be suppressed. [10] However, the question of exactly what police tactics go too far remains controversial. As the majority explained, voluntariness is generally assessed using a “totality of the circumstances” test, [11] an approach that is often criticized for being open-ended and apparently arbitrary in application. The Supreme Court’s well-known Miranda rule was in part an attempt to impose a bright-line procedural protection on this difficult area of law. [12]

The Michigan Supreme Court has identified various specific, though not exclusive, factors to be weighed as part of the totality:

the age of the accused; his lack of education or his intelligence level; the extent of his previous experience with the police; the repeated and prolonged nature of the questioning; the length of the detention of the accused before he gave the statement in question; the lack of any advice to the accused of his constitutional rights; whether there was an unnecessary delay in bringing him before a magistrate before he gave the confession; whether the accused was injured, intoxicated or drugged, or in ill health when he gave the statement; whether the accused was deprived of food, sleep, or medical attention; whether the accused was physically abused; and whether the suspect was threatened with abuse. [13]

“[E]xpress or implied assurances” of leniency can also lead to a finding of involuntariness. [14] The court recounted the details of Stewart’s interrogation, which took place at 3:36 in the morning and went on for a little more than three hours. [15] After mirandizing Stewart and discussing preliminary matters, they pressed him on his story and used escalating language (including profanity and racial slurs). They also attempted to entice Stewart with the story of a woman who cooperated and received a prison sentence of two years instead of twenty. [16] The suggestion of leniency appeared to have enticed Stewart, and he eventually admitted to serving as the driver. [17]

Applying the various factors, the majority found that Stewart’s statements were involuntary considering the totality of the circumstances. Stewart’s age weighed in his favor: “18-year-olds ‘are hampered in their ability to make decisions, exercise self-control, appreciate risks or consequences, feel fear, and plan ahead’; are ‘more susceptible to negative outside influences, including peer pressure’; and are ‘less fixed in their characteristics and more susceptible to change as they age.’” [18] While the three-hour interrogation was not too long, the hour at which it was held may have resulted in sleep deprivation; there was also an indication in the record that Stewart may have been recently diagnosed with cancer and was suffering from the effects of cancer treatment. [19] The court found the other factors—such as education, intoxication, and experience with law enforcement—“largely neutral.” [20] The court also found that, while the officers had never explicitly promised cooperation would lead to leniency, they had sufficiently implied it such “that defendant took these statements as an assurance of a lesser sentence.” [21] Likewise, the officers’ “combative” tone, objectionable language, and lies about the extent of their evidence against Stewart also supported a finding of involuntariness. [22] “[W]hen considered collectively,” “the overall effect” of these factors taken together were held to meet the standard of involuntariness. [23] Since the only evidence against Stewart (other than arriving in the shot-up getaway car) was his confession, the majority granted him a new trial. [24]

Justice David Viviano, joined by Justice Brian Zahra, dissented. He “agree[d] with many of the majority’s separate analyses of the factors,” but asked why “these factors, insufficient on their own, somehow combine to render the confession involuntary.” [25] Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Justice Viviano argued that “voluntariness. . . has always depended on the absence of police overreaching, not on ‘free choice’ in any broader sense of the word.” [26] Therefore, rather than the squishier psychological factors, “the focus of the analysis should be upon police conduct and whether any threats, intimidation, or physical force were employed.” [27] Since nothing in the officers’ conduct rose to that level, he would have sustained the conviction.

“Totality” analysis, by its nature, tends towards the idiosyncratic: which factors a court will or will not find significant can be unpredictable. This explains Justice Viviano’s preference for bright-line rules for police misbehavior—threats, force, etc.—over judicial attempts at psychological analysis. Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court adopted the Miranda rule out of frustration with weighing the totality of the circumstances. It’s not clear that cases in this area of law have become more predictable since then.

[1] People v. Stewart, No. 162497, 2023 Mich. LEXIS 1151, at *1 (July 31, 2023).

[2] Id. at *2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at *3.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] People v. Stewart, 508 Mich. 941, 941 (2021) (citing People v. Conte, 421 Mich. 704 (1984); People v. Shipley, 256 Mich. App. 367, 373 (2003)).

[9] See U.S. Const. amend. V; Mich. Const. art. I, § 17.

[10] See Colo. v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 165 (1986); People v. Cipriano, 431 Mich. 315, 331 (1988).

[11] Cipriano, 431 Mich. at 334.

[12] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

[13] Stewart, 2023 Mich. LEXIS 1151, at *6 (quoting Cipriano, 431 Mich. at 334).

[14] Id. at *7.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at *14-15.

[17] Id. at *15-16.

[18] Id. at *17-18 (quoting People v. Parks, 510 Mich. 225, 250-51 (2022)).

[19] Id. at *20-21.

[20] Id. at *21.

[21] Id. at *23.

[22] Id. at *25-26.

[23] Id. at *26.

[24] Id. at *28.

[25] Id. at *30.

[26] Id. (quoting Connelly, 479 U.S. at 170).

[27]  Id. at *33.