UPDATES & ANALYSIS

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Detectives’ ‘distasteful’ deception crossed no constitutional lines, Iowa Supreme Court holds

by Rox Laird | February 2, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court has for more than 60 years used what it has called a “common sense” standard for determining whether police officers cross a constitutional line by dangling the prospect of leniency before a criminal suspect that is likely to lead to a false confession.

Applying the precedent first enunciated in 1957, the Court asks: “Will the statements by the interrogating officer likely cause the subject to make a false confession?” (State v. Mullin, 85 N.W.2d 598, 602.)

The Iowa Supreme Court used that test in a unanimous decision handed down Jan. 27 holding that West Des Moines police detectives did not entice a woman suspected of murdering her husband into waiving her constitutional rights with deceptions and suggestions of leniency.

Gowun Park was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping for the death by strangulation of her husband, Sung Woo Nam, who was found bound to a chair in the study of their West Des Moines condo with ligature marks on his neck.

The Dallas County District Court granted Park’s motion to suppress statements she made to police in interviews over the course of five days. The State challenged the suppression ruling in an interlocutory appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, which was transferred to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s holding that Park was in custody when detectives initially interviewed her in her home, but the three-judge panel agreed with the trial court that Park did not voluntarily waive her Miranda rights during a subsequent interview. The panel held detectives made improper promises of leniency during that interview, which tainted three subsequent interviews.

The Iowa Supreme Court, which granted the State’s application for further review, vacated the Court of Appeals’ decision and reversed the District Court’s suppression of Park’s statements. The Jan. 27 decision, written by Justice Edward Mansfield, was joined by all participating justices. Justices Thomas Waterman and David May took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Park argued the detectives used deception to get her to talk by lying to her about her husband’s condition at the hospital, leaving her to believe he was still alive while they repeatedly emphasized the urgency of speaking to them in order to facilitate his treatment. The officers in fact knew he had already died.

The Iowa Supreme Court, however, said that from the start Park had voluntarily cooperated with detectives, and her explanation for how her husband came to be bound and tied to a chair did not change until after she was fully aware that he had died at the hospital.

“The detectives’ deception may have been distasteful, but it didn’t cause Park’s waiver of her Miranda rights,” Mansfield wrote.

Nor did the detectives cross the line when they suggested they sympathized with her claim that she had been physically abused by her husband, that they were there to “help” her, and that people would understand her taking matters into her own hands if she had been abused.

In previous Iowa Supreme Court cases citing Iowa’s standard for when officers cross the line with deception, police officers “misled the defendants as to the future disposition of their cases in a specific, concrete way,” Mansfield wrote.

In Park’s case, he wrote, the detectives’ expressions of sympathy if she had been abused by her husband ranged from being reasonable in nature to untrue, but they all fell short of a promise of leniency.

“Thus, we conclude the statements made by the detectives were not likely to cause a false confession and did not cross the line into improper promissory leniency,” the Court concluded.

 

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