Eye on Eagle

People v. Cabrera


Issues before the Court: (1) Whether Mr. Cabrera was in custody for Miranda purposes when he
was handcuffed and questioned by law enforcement; (2) Whether Mr. Cabrera’s conviction
violated the Second Amendment in light of Bruen (and other Bruen-related issues).

Factual background: South Carolina law enforcement alerted ATF that Mr. Cabrera was
traveling to New York with guns in the trunk of his car. When Mr. Cabrera pulled up to his
mother’s house in the Bronx, three armed officers handcuffed him and, without administering
Miranda warnings, asked whether he had guns in his car. When Mr. Cabrera responded yes, the
officers opened the trunk and observed the top portion of a rifle. In response to further
questioning, Mr. Cabrera admitted that he didn’t have a NYS Carry Permit. He was arrested and
brought to the precinct, where he invoked his right to silence after being given Miranda
warnings but signed a written consent for the police to search his trunk. The police recovered a
disassembled rifle, three handguns, and several boxes of ammunition from the trunk. After the
court denied suppression, Mr. Cabrera pleaded guilty to one count of Penal Law § 265.03(3).

Held: (1) Yes, Mr. Cabrera was in custody when handcuffed. While declining to adopt a per se
rule, the Court found no record support for the lower courts’ conclusion that he was not in
custody on these facts, and acknowledged “there may be very few circumstances where a
handcuffed person is not in custody for purposes of Miranda given the obvious physical
constraint and association with formal arrest.” The use of handcuffs should have significant,
albeit not dispositive, weight in assessing whether an individual is in custody for purposes of
Miranda. The Court suppressed Mr. Cabrera’s statement, but not the guns, and vacated his plea.
(2) As the Court found that lack of preservation barred review of any of the issues on the merits,
the Bruen issues remain open [See the comprehensive discussion of the Court’s reasoning in the
Bruen cases above].

CAL Observes: It is difficult to believe that we actually needed a ruling from our high court to
declare the obvious – that handcuffs, in most (if not all) cases, will place a person in custody,
but the lower courts had muddled things terribly by conflating Fourth Amendment arrest with
Fifth Amendment custody, that is, unless a person was “under arrest,” he was not “in custody”
for Miranda purposes. So the Court’s untethering of the two is a welcome clarification.
However, the opinion is still disappointing insofar as it suppressed only the statements and not
the physical fruits. The Court reached this remedy by employing attenuation analysis to find that
the written consent at the precinct provided an independent and lawful basis for recovering the
guns. In doing so, the Court minimized the significant problems with the consent itself, as
pointed out by the two dissenters, who would have found both a per se rule and suppressed the
guns. Notably, the Court did not apply (nor did the majority even mention) United States v.
Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004), which held, as a matter of federal constitutional law, that a
Miranda violation does not require suppression of physical evidence flowing from that violation.
542 U.S. at 636-37.

Going forward, practitioners should be alert to other Miranda-related concepts and exceptions
ripe for challenge, which, like custody, have been (mis)interpreted by lower courts over time to
sweep in virtually any statement made, unless resulting from an egregious in-precinct violation.
For example, virtually any questioning in the course of a street detention is deemed
“investigatory questioning,” and thus not interrogation triggering the Miranda requirement.
However, the original case allowing such unMirandized questioning, People v. Huffman, 41
N.Y.2d 29 (1976), cabined the exception to a single question necessary to clarify an ongoing and
confusing situation. It is well past time to revisit the scope, if not the continued validity, of the
so-called “Huffman” exception. Practitioners should similarly be alert to invocations by the
prosecution of the “public safety” exception to excuse law enforcement’s failure to dispense with
Miranda warnings. As originally conceived by the Supreme Court in New York v. Quarles, 467
U.S. 649 (1984), the public safety exception is meant to address extreme situations where
deterring the suspect from responding would pose an immediate danger to the public safety – as
in Quarles, where a gun was at loose in a supermarket.

Another area of future litigation concerns the application of Patane in New York. Several states
have already rejected Patane on state constitutional grounds. The People did not preserve a
Patane argument in Cabrera -- raising it for the first time in the Court of Appeals -- but the issue
will eventually need to be litigated and resolved.