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State v. Nguyen

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

August 12, 2013

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
Long Phi Nguyen, Respondent.


Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-12-24661

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Jean Burdorf, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)

William M. Ward, Fourth District Chief Public Defender, Peter W. Gorman, Assistant Public Defender, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Hooten, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Cleary, Judge.


In this pretrial appeal, the state challenges the district court's suppression of respondent's statements to a detective. The state argues that the district court's suppression will have a critical impact on the prosecution of the case and that the district court clearly and unequivocally erred by determining that respondent's Miranda waiver was invalid and that respondent's statements were not voluntary. Respondent argues that he was subject to interrogation and that all statements must be suppressed. Because the district court's factual finding that respondent is disabled in communication supports its legal conclusion that his statements were involuntary, we affirm.


At around 6:00 a.m. on July 30, 2012, respondent Long Phi Nguyen allegedly shot his roommate because he was making too much noise while washing dishes. Respondent was arrested later that day and transported to the Brooklyn Park jail. He met with Detective Russell Czapar in an interview room. After a few preliminary questions, Detective Czapar attempted to ascertain respondent's grasp of English:

Q: Do you understand English well?
A: Not really.
Q: Speak English well?
A: Little bit.
Q: Okay. If you have questions or concerns, ask me.
A: Yeah.
Q: If you don't understand somethin', we can repeat it.
A: Yeah.

Detective Czapar then proceeded with more preliminary questions, such as the spelling of respondent's name, date of birth, phone number, and address.

Respondent then volunteered that he was unemployed. When Detective Czapar asked respondent to clarify his job-seeking status, respondent confessed that he shot his roommate:

Q: . . . Are you lookin' for work right now?
A: Yeah. . . . Over almost three year.
Q: Okay.
A: I don't have a job.
Q: Okay.
A: I have one eye. And my eye, it don't see. This eye don't see.
Q: Oh, so you have some problems with . . .
A: Only this one. It hard to find job one. And they got a little little (inaudible). I couldn't sleep on. But the guy, you know, holler, you know. You know. All the time when I wanted. I say no. I I I could sleep but, you know what? You don't sleep on the . . . Let me sleep? He open the door and he cook and he make a loud. (Inaudible) I say. You can't help me (inaudible). I say, Hey, don't (inaudible) me. That's why
I shoot him.
Q: Okay.
A: (Inaudible) in right hand. (Inaudible) I shoot him. That's why I shoot him in the right hand for. He he open, you know. That's why? But he (inaudible) in the all the right under, you know. Five. Five-thirty. He cook and he wash the machine. He make a loud, you know.

Detective Czapar read respondent his Miranda rights in English. But respondent provided no response, stated that he did not understand, or provided an answer indicating an incomplete understanding. Respondent then requested an interpreter and indicated to Detective Czapar that he did not understand what the detective was saying: "You know. Not very well, you know. Just a little. Little. That's why I wanna really, you know." Detective Czapar responded that he would "[a]bsolutely" get an interpreter.

Detective Czapar secured a Vietnamese interpreter from LanguageLine, an over-the-phone interpretation service utilized by the Brooklyn Park Police Department. The interpreter translated Detective Czapar's reading of the Miranda rights from English to Vietnamese. Respondent indicated that he understood his rights and, with the aid of the interpreter, stated that he wished to speak with Detective Czapar about the shooting. Without the aid of the interpreter, respondent described who was present in the house at the time of the shooting. At one point, Detective Czapar asked, "Do you need the translator anymore or are we okay?" Respondent stated, "Uh, some some I can do but some some I . . . ." Detective Czapar stated that he would have the interpreter hold "until we have problems." Respondent explained that his roommate attacked him by grabbing his wrist and neck and recalled shooting the roommate once or twice and then leaving the house.

The state charged respondent by amended complaint with attempted second-degree murder under Minn. Stat. §§ 609.19, subd. 1(1), .17 (2010), and first-degree assault under Minn. Stat. § 609.221, subd. 1 (2010). The district court held a contested omnibus hearing to determine whether to suppress respondent's statements. Detective Czapar testified that he did not utilize the interpreter throughout the interview "[b]ecause, during that questioning, we were able to understand each other and talk and get through our interview without any assistance. I left him on the line so, if we had problems again in our conversation, he would be there." The state played the videorecording of the interview, and respondent offered the transcribed version.

In a January 2013 order, the district court suppressed respondent's statements except those made before he indicated that he did "[n]ot really" understand English well and those made with the aid of the interpreter. The district court found that respondent is a person disabled in communication, that Detective Czapar should have realized this, and that Detective Czapar should have immediately obtained an interpreter. The district court acknowledged that Detective Czapar obtained an interpreter, but did not utilize him throughout the interview, causing the district court to query, "While [respondent] may have indicated that he was fine answering some questions without the interpreter's assistance, one must ask the question of how was [respondent] to know what exactly Detective Czapar was asking if he had difficulty communicating?" The district court held that "once it is determined that a suspect is disabled in communication, an interpreter should be used throughout the entire statement." The district court concluded that respondent's language barriers and minimal contact and familiarity with the criminal-justice system rendered his statement involuntary and that respondent did not validly waive his Miranda rights.

The state moved the district court to reconsider its order. The district court denied the motion, but clarified that respondent was in custody at the time of the interview, was not subject to interrogation prior to the reading of his Miranda rights, and was subject to interrogation after being read his Miranda rights. The district court concluded that no Miranda violation occurred because "Miranda was read and ultimately understood." Still, the district court concluded that respondent's confession was involuntary, that use of it at trial would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that:

Due to the lack of interpretation throughout the entire interview, [respondent] was incapable of providing a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his Miranda rights even though he was properly advised of them with the aid of an interpreter. Solely because [respondent] was read his Miranda rights with an interpreter does not mean that he understood what transpired in the questioning without the interpreter after Miranda was read.

This appeal follows.


The state may appeal "any pretrial order" if it can establish that "the district court's alleged error, unless reversed, will have a critical impact on the outcome of the trial." Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.04, subds. 1(1), 2(1). We will reverse the district court only if the state demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that the district court erred in its judgment and that the error will have a critical impact on the outcome of the trial. State v. Edrozo, 578 N.W.2d 719, 722 (Minn. 1998).


The state argues that the suppression of respondent's statements will have a critical impact on the prosecution of the case. "[T]he standard for critical impact is that the lack of the suppressed evidence significantly reduces the likelihood of a ...

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