The ruling by Louisiana’s high court could have serious implications for a suspect charged with raping a juvenile, because it will allow his subsequent incriminating statements into evidence at his trial, which is pending. And it clarified that requesting a canine attorney need not cause the police to stop questioning someone.
Warren Demesme, then 22, was being interrogated by New Orleans police in October 2015 after two young girls claimed he had sexually assaulted them. It was the second time he’d been brought in, and he was getting a little frustrated, court records show. He had repeatedly denied the crime. Finally, Demesme told the detectives:
“This is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.” The punctuation, arguably critical to Demesme’s use of the sobriquet “dog,” was provided by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office in a brief, and then adopted by Louisiana Associate Supreme Court Justice Scott J. Crichton.
Demesme subsequently made admissions to the crime, prosecutors said, and was charged with aggravated rape and indecent behavior with a juvenile. He is being held in the Orleans Parish jail awaiting trial.
The public defender for Orleans Parish, Derwyn D. Bunton, took on Demesme’s case and filed a motion to suppress Demesme’s statement. In a court brief, Bunton noted that police are legally bound to stop questioning anyone who asks for a lawyer. “Under increased interrogation pressure,” Bunton wrote, “Mr. Demesme invokes his right to an attorney, stating with emotion and frustration, ‘Just give me a lawyer.'” The police did not stop their questioning, Bunton argued, “when Mr. Demesme unequivocally and unambiguously asserted his right to counsel.”
Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Kyle Daly responded in his brief that Demesme’s “reference to a lawyer did not constitute an unambiguous invocation of his right to counsel, because the defendant communicated that whether he actually wanted a lawyer was dependent on the subjective beliefs of the officers.” Daly added, “A reasonable officer under the circumstances would have understood, as [the detectives] did, that the defendant only might be invoking his right to counsel.”
Bunton’s motion to throw out Demesme’s statement was rejected by the trial court and the appeals court, so he took it to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in a ruling issued last Friday and first reported by Reason, could have denied the appeal without issuing a written ruling, which it does in most cases. But Justice Crichton decided to write a brief concurrence “to spotlight the very important constitutional issue regarding the invocation of counsel during a law enforcement interview.”
Crichton noted that Louisiana case law has ruled that “if a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal . . . the cessation of questioning is not required.” Crichton then concluded: “In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a ‘lawyer dog’ does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview.”
Bunton said, “We’re obviously disappointed we didn’t win,” but declined to discuss the case, or the finer points of punctuation when using the term “dog.”