BB&K Police Bulletin: Booking Question Regarding Gang Membership Subject to Miranda Protections: Booking Exception Inapplicable If Officer Should Have Known the Question is Likely to Elicit an Incriminating Response


Overview: After three gang members were convicted of several murder charges, conspiracy and gang enhancements for the death of four victims, they appealed alleging the trial court erred in admitting various pieces of evidence. The appellate court found the trial court had committed only one error: admitting one of the defendants’ un-Mirandized statements made when he was booked into the jail. Finding this error was not prejudicial because the charge was supported by other evidence, the court affirmed the judgments.

Training Points: This case illustrates while jail deputies are entitled to, and permitted to continue asking pre-booking classification questions to inmates to protect jail personnel and inmates from harm, if a suspect’s responses are intended to be used against him/her at trial, Miranda warnings are required if the questions are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. Courts will consider the following factors in determining whether pre-booking questions are legitimate and fall within the routine booking exception to Miranda or are a pretext for eliciting incriminating evidence:

  • The nature of the questions (whether they seek merely identifying data necessary for booking);
  • The context of the interrogation (whether questions are asked during a non-investigative clerical booking process and pursuant to a standard booking form or questionnaire);
  • The knowledge and intent of the government agent asking the questions;
  • The relationship between the questions asked and the crime the defendant was suspected of committing; and
  • The administrative need for the information sought.

Summary Analysis: In People v. Elizalde, defendants Mota, Elizande and Gomez, all Sureno gang members, were convicted of three murders that occurred over a four month period. After he was arrested, defendant Mota was taken to jail. The intake deputy testified arrestees are routinely asked three questions: (1) if they have been there before (to aid the booking officer in bringing up their information); (2) if they have any gang affiliations (so the deputies know where to put them once they come inside of intake); and (3) if they have any fears for their safety (so if a suspect reports any fear for his safety, requests protective custody or if they belong to a gang, they can go into one of the rooms to await processing). 

The deputy testified that during booking, Mota said, “Man, I’m in here for some shit that I didn’t do. They said that I killed someone, but it wasn’t me. I was there, but I didn’t kill anyone. The guy that did it is already in jail. He confessed already, but now he is trying to bring me down too…I’m a gang-banger, but I’m not a murderer..” The intake deputy asked Mota if he wanted to speak with a detective. Mota replied, “Yeah, I will, but first I should talk to my lawyer. After I talk to him, I will tell you guys what really went down.” The deputy did not ask Mota about his gang affiliation but knew Mota was in a gang.

A second deputy interviewed Mota, asking him “classification questions” for an “administrative purpose” for the arrestee’s housing. This deputy knew Mota had been charged with murder but did not (1) Mirandize Mota prior to the interview; (2) advise him that he had a right to decline to answer; or (3) tell him he was required to answer the questions. The deputy noted on the classification questionnaire Mota told him he was an active Sureno gang member and had identified himself as “affiliated with the Sureno street gang” and part of another active gang.

Mota moved to suppress his admission of gang membership arguing the deputies to whom he admitted his gang affiliation knew or should reasonably have known questions about his gang affiliation were likely to elicit an incriminating response—in this case, because of the gang enhancements—and should have given him Miranda warnings before questioning him.

The appellate court held that upon booking, while deputies are expected to ask arrestees about gang membership in order to protect both jail personnel and inmates from harm, the answers to these questions may not be used against defendants at trial in absence of Miranda warnings. The court stated when asked about his gang affiliation, Mota had two choices: (1) admit to gang membership and incriminate himself or (2) lie or refuse to answer the questions and risk physical injury when he was housed with rival gang members, noting that the price of protecting oneself from harm while in custody should not be incriminating oneself. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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