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State v. Hunter

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 11, 2018

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Ashley Kenneth Hunter, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Norman G. Anderson, Judge.

          Birch P. Burdick, State's Attorney, Fargo, North Dakota, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Samuel A. Gereszek (argued), East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and Anna Dearth (appeared), third-year law student, under the Rule on Limited Practice of Law by Law Students, for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          TUFTE, JUSTICE.

         [¶ 1] Ashley Hunter appealed from a criminal judgment entered after a jury found him guilty of two counts of murder and one count of arson. Hunter argues the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress, the court erred in allowing testimony about his statements to a medical professional, and the judge should have recused himself. We affirm.

         I

         [¶ 2] On the afternoon of June 22, 2015, Fargo police officers responded to a call about a death at a north Fargo location and found the body of Clarence Flowers. Flowers had been stabbed numerous times. Later that day, firefighters responded to a call about a fire at another north Fargo location and found the body of Samuel Traut. Traut had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head.

         [¶ 3] The next morning Fargo police officers were dispatched to an address near the Traut murder scene in response to a call about a suspicious male. When officers arrived at the address, Hunter approached them and was arrested. Hunter was considered a person of interest in the Traut death, but the officers arrested him on a bench warrant for unrelated charges. Hunter was taken to the police station, where he was questioned by Fargo police detectives Matthew Ysteboe and Nick Kjonaas. Hunter made several incriminating statements related to the Flowers and Traut murders. After the interview was complete, Hunter attempted suicide and was taken to the hospital. Hunter was charged with two counts of murder and one count of arson.

         [¶ 4] On April 10, 2017, Hunter filed a demand for change of judge under N.D.C.C. § 29-15-21. The court denied the demand for failing to comply with statutory requirements.

         [¶ 5] On April 10, 2017, Hunter moved to suppress statements he made to law enforcement after his arrest, arguing the statements were coerced and were not voluntary. He also argued that information obtained from Andrea Wallace, an emergency room nurse, about statements he made to her should be suppressed because Wallace violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA") by informing police about statements he had made while he was receiving medical care. After a hearing on Hunter's motion, Hunter filed a supplement to his motion to suppress. He argued his statements to police should be suppressed because he was not given the warning required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), before he made the statements and he did not knowingly and intelligently waive his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. He also argued that any statements he made to medical professionals should be suppressed on the basis of physician-patient privilege.

         [¶ 6] On April 21, 2017, the district court entered an order authorizing disclosure of medical information and denying Hunter's motion to suppress his statements made to Wallace based on his HIPAA arguments. The court later entered a second order denying Hunter's motion to suppress the statements made to Wallace based on his physician-patient privilege argument.

         [¶ 7] On May 10, 2017, the district court denied the remaining issues raised in Hunter's motion to suppress. The court found Kjonaas gave Hunter the Miranda warning before Hunter was transported to the police station for questioning, Hunter understood the warning, Hunter never invoked his right to remain silent, and Hunter voluntarily spoke to police about the murders. The court concluded Hunter voluntarily waived his right to remain silent.

         [¶ 8] On May 12, 2017, Hunter moved the court to reconsider its order denying his motion to suppress the statements he made to police. He argued the statements had been involuntary. The court denied his motion. A nine-day jury trial began on May 22. The jury found Hunter guilty of both counts of murder and one count of arson.

         II

         [¶ 9] Hunter argues the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress because the State failed to meet its burden to establish he was given a Miranda warning and he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his constitutional rights.

         [¶ 10] We have explained our standard of review for reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress:

When reviewing a district court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we defer to the district court's findings of fact and resolve conflicts in testimony in favor of affirmance. We recognize that the district court is in a superior position to assess the credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence. Generally, a district court's decision to deny a motion to suppress will not be reversed if there is sufficient competent evidence capable of supporting the district court's findings, and if its decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Questions of law are fully reviewable on appeal, and whether a finding of fact meets a legal standard is a question of law.

State v. Rogers, 2014 ND 134, ¶ 17, 848 N.W.2d 257 (quoting State v. Goebel, 2007 ND 4, ¶ 11, 725 N.W.2d 578).

         A

         [¶ 11] Hunter argues the district court erred by finding he was given a Miranda warning before he was subject to custodial interrogation. He claims the court's finding was based on Kjonaas' testimony that he gave Hunter the Miranda warning at the scene of the arrest, but other evidence indicated Kjonaas was never at the scene of the arrest and there was no other indication from the record that Hunter was ever given the Miranda warning.

         [¶ 12] The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that no person shall "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." In Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444, the Supreme Court held as a matter of federal constitutional law that "the prosecution may not use statements... stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination." A law enforcement officer is required to give a person subject to custodial interrogation a Miranda warning and inform him of certain rights, including that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has a right to an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning. Id.; see alsoRogers, 2014 ND 134, ¶ 18, 848 N.W.2d 257. The ...


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