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Did a Defendant Saying ‘I Don’t Want to Snitch without a Lawyer’ Invoke an Unambiguous Request for Counsel?

Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, those who are questioned or investigated by law enforcement officers have the right to request and receive legal counsel before making any statements or further cooperating with law enforcement. Once those under investigation invoke their right to have counsel during this time, police must immediately cease their interrogation.

Recently, in State v. Negrete, No. 01-19-00357-CR (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist], May 4, 2021), The First District Court of Appeals in Texas examined or not whether a defendant’s requests for legal counsel during his interrogation by police were unambiguous and unequivocal enough to be clearly understood, and if his videotaped confession should be thrown out as evidence during his trial.

During his interrogation, the defendant made three crucial statements:

  • "I don't want to snitch without a lawyer."
  • "What about my lawyer right there."
  • "I want to make sure that I am going to be benefitted. That's why I need a lawyer."

Despite these statements, investigators did not stop the interrogation and threatened to arrest the defendants’ family members – despite knowing they were not involved in criminal activity – until he eventually confessed.

The trial court ruled that these statements indicated the defendant was attempting to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, and agreed that his interrogation and confession should be suppressed as evidence. The State appealed the ruling, saying that the defendant’s use of the slang word “snitch” made his statements ambiguous.

Ultimately, though, the appellate court ruled against this argument and agreed with the trial court’s interpretation of the defendant’s statements.

The appellate court concluded that the defendant “articulated his desire for the assistance of counsel sufficiently clear that a reasonable law enforcement officer in the circumstances would have understood that the statement was a request for an attorney.”

It also founded that the defendant “unambiguously and unequivocally invoked his right to counsel and the law enforcement officers conducting the interview had a duty to terminate their interrogation.