Inside the Courts

Legal fight over ‘custody’ reaches into hospital

Tae Kwon Hammonds
Tae Kwon Hammonds N.C. Department of Corrections

A state Supreme Court ruling this week that probes the uneasy relationship between police and the emotionally ill could expand North Carolina’s legal definition of “custody.”

The legal grappling involves an appropriately named defendant, Tae Kwon Hammonds, now a state prison inmate. On Dec. 10, 2012, police believed Hammonds robbed a Union County woman at gunpoint in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Monroe.

The next day, after recently breaking up with his girlfriend, Hammonds swallowed more than three dozen pills in a suicide attempt. A magistrate ordered him involuntarily committed to Carolinas Healthcare System Union. That night he tried to leave the hospital, and nurses gave him a shot of a powerful anti-psychotic sedative to calm him down.

On Dec. 12, police detectives Jonathan Williams and Lt. T.J. Goforth came to the hospital to speak to Hammonds about the robbery two nights before. They asked Hammonds’ nurse if they could see him. She agreed.

For the next 90 minutes, they questioned Hammonds and secretly recorded the conversation. They didn’t introduce themselves as police. They didn’t have an arrest warrant. They didn’t read Hammonds his rights, and they didn’t tell him he could have ended the interrogation at any time.

Anne Gomez, one of Hammonds’ attorneys, says her client’s lethargic, mumbling answers captured by the recording make it sound like he just woke up. She says Hammond initially denied any role in the robbery before eventually admitting his guilt. He was indicted that February.

In June 2014, Hammonds’ trial attorneys tried to have his hospital statements kept out of his trial on the grounds that Hammonds had been denied his Miranda rights during a “custodial interrogation.”

Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace, however, allowed the recording to be heard, and Hammonds was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon and sentenced to 60 to 84 months.

Last December, the N.C. Court of Appeals denied Hammonds’ argument that he had been placed in legal custody at the hospital by a judge’s order and, thus, deserved his Miranda rights.

This week, the state Supreme Court disagreed. In an order authored by Justice Jimmy Ervin of Morganton, the high court sent the case back to Wallace’s courtroom for another hearing on whether the hospital recording should be admitted as evidence.

This time, the judges want Wallace to pay particular attention to the fact on “whether the involuntarily committed defendant was told that he was free to end the questioning.”

Gomez, Hammonds’ appellate attorney, says the case is the first of its kind in North Carolina and one of only five or so nationwide.

If the hospital confession is thrown out, it remains to be seen if prosecutors have enough evidence to convict Hammonds a second time.