A Union County man’s conviction for robbery was thrown out Monday after a divided state Supreme Court ruled that Monroe police did not read him his Miranda rights while he was being held under involuntary commitment.
Tae Kwon Hammonds was found guilty of pointing a gun at a woman in 2012 and stealing her purse. He was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to five to seven years in prison.
Hours after the robbery, Hammonds intentionally took an overdose of drugs, court documents say. Early the next morning, a Union County magistrate found that he was “mentally ill and dangerous to self and others” and involuntarily committed Hammonds to a Union County hospital.
That’s where Monroe police investigators questioned him the day after the robbery, and that’s where Hammonds’ Miranda rights normally would have kicked in. Except, they did not.
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Under the landmark 1966 Supreme Court case on protecting citizens from self-incrimination, police are required to give the following warning before interviewing anyone in custody:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
According to documents, the Monroe officers did not read Hammonds his rights during their 90-minute interview with him in the hospital emergency room. Instead, they told Hammonds they would leave if he cooperated and answered their questions.
He did, and police used some of his self-incriminating answers to get an indictment. Before his trial, Union County Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace rejected a defense motion to have Hammonds’ hospital comments thrown out on a Miranda violation. She also denied a second defense request to dismiss the charges. Her reasoning: Hammonds was not in police custody at the time and thus his confession was voluntary. Miranda rights only apply to those subjected to “custodial interrogations.”
In 2015, a split opinion by the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Wallace’s decision.
The state Supreme Court disagreed. In June 2016, the justices threw out the earlier findings and ordered Wallace to hold a new hearing on whether Hammonds’ answers were admissible. Three months later, Wallace again ruled that the confession was proper, which set the stage for Monday’s ruling by the state’s highest court.
Again, the court found that Wallace had misinterpreted how Miranda protections applied to Hammonds’ case. The key question, Associate Judge Robin Hudson wrote, is whether a “reasonable person” in Hammonds’ situation “would have felt at liberty to terminate the interrogation” and whether the same “coercive pressures” inherent to any police interrogation were also at play in the emergency room that night.
Given that Hammonds was under an involuntary commitment order, that police had never read him his rights, and that the detectives had told Hammonds they would leave as soon as he answered his questions, Hudson said Hammonds was in a coercive situation and Miranda should apply.
The fact that it did not, the court majority ruled, amounted to “prejudicial” error requiring Hammonds’ conviction to be thrown out.
Associate Justice Jimmy Ervin dissented.
The immediate impact of Monday’s ruling on Hammonds was not immediately clear. As of Monday, he was still being held in the Lanesboro Correctional Institution.