In May 2016, Albany police arrested then-19-year-old Malik Dawson for an alleged sexual assault. They drove him to a police station, took his cell phone, shackled his leg to a chair, and left him in a small interrogation room.
After two hours, a cop entered the room and asked Dawson if he knew what Miranda rights were. He didn’t. The officer referenced television shows, like Law & Order: “You know, when they interview people, they have to inform them of their rights.” That rang a bell for Dawson: “Oh, the right to remain silent?” So the officer read him his Miranda rights, including his right to have a lawyer present when being interrogated, and asked if he understood.
“Yeah, definitely,” Dawson said. “I just wish that I’d memorized my lawyer’s number. He’s in my phone. Is it possible for me to, like, call him or something?”
“Do you want your lawyer here?” the cop replied. Dawson again said that he’d like to call him. But he also wanted to know what was going on. The officer replied that, if Dawson wanted his lawyer, he legally couldn’t talk to him until the lawyer got there.
“From the sound of it, it sounds like you understand your Miranda rights and you want your attorney,” the officer said. He told Dawson that he would go get his phone, and then left the room.
But the cop didn’t get the phone. Instead, he came back and gave Dawson two options: He could call his lawyer, or they could “just figure this out.” The officer then told Dawson that it would help his case if he appeared contrite, and had him write an apology letter to his alleged victim, with whom Dawson had insisted he had a consensual relationship. Later, a jury would use the letter and interrogation to convict Dawson, and a judge would sentence him to seven years in prison.
After reviewing video of the encounter, a New York Court of Appeals judge outlined Dawson’s interrogation in a dissenting opinion issued last week. “Mr. Dawson unequivocally invoked his right to counsel,” the judge argued, and thus any interrogation after that was illegal and shouldn’t have been used in court.
But the majority disagreed. Even though Dawson was trying to figure out how to contact his lawyer, and even though the cop said that he thought Dawson had evoked his right to counsel, the state’s highest court decided that Dawson didn’t assert his request clearly enough, so the officer was free to continue interrogation.
To many who work in criminal law, Dawson’s interrogation sounds like an all too familiar set of events: A young person is arrested and read their rights, which they don’t fully comprehend. Hyper-focused on getting out of police custody, they get overwhelmed, and go along with whatever the cops say, incriminating themselves.
“The case shows you just how out of touch the law is,” said Marty Feinman, a retired attorney who until recently ran the Legal Aid Society’s juvenile delinquency practice. “It shows how little there is in the way of common sense that’s being applied in this kind of scenario.”