Scott Doll asked for a lawyer, but the Genesee County Sheriff’s deputies kept up with the questions, detaining him in the back of their car. It was February 2009, and Doll was covered in wet blood. There was also blood inside his parked van, and on the snow around it. Worried there was an injured person somewhere, the deputies searched the area and called Doll’s friends and family to ask if anyone was missing. Soon after, they visited the home of Doll’s business partner. He lay dead on the driveway.
DNA tests showed the blood on Doll’s clothing matched the victim’s. A jury convicted him of second-degree murder, which carried a 15-to-life prison sentence. In the years since, Doll’s legal team has argued that the physical evidence and the statements during his detention in the car should have been inadmissible because the deputies violated Doll’s right to counsel when they couldn’t even be certain that any laws had been broken.
Last week, the state’s highest court snuffed out that defense. In a unanimous decision, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that authorities were allowed to bypass Miranda rights because they reasonably suspected an ongoing emergency, even though they did not know whether a crime had actually been committed.
“Specifically, the police officers responding to a 911 call found defendant walking along a public road covered in fresh, wet blood and their reasonable inquiries regarding the source of the blood were met with inconsistent responses by defendant, who refused to state whether the blood was from a human or an animal,” Judge Victoria A. Graffeo wrote in Thursday’s decision. “Under these circumstances, it was reasonable for the police to believe that a person may have been seriously injured and in need of imminent emergency assistance.”
The emergency doctrine–which allows authorities to violate a suspect’s right to a lawyer in certain urgent circumstances–“is premised on reasonableness, not certitude,” the court stated.
On February 16, 2009, the deputies had received a call reporting a suspicious person walking down a road in Pembroke, which is 30 miles east of Buffalo. The caller told authorities that the suspect hid between two cars upon noticing him.
When they stopped Doll, he initially explained that he was wearing his deer butchering clothes to keep warm. But, police said, he wouldn’t explain why the blood was fresh, and when they drove him to his van, there were no butchered deer to be found. They did find a pair of bloody gloves.
The police ended up at the home of the business associate, Joseph E. Benaquist, after a tip from one of the family members they called. Benaquist, 66, and Doll, now 51, ran an auto dealership together. Doll also worked as a corrections officer at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County.
At the jail that night, one of Doll’s former co-workers showed up and asked to speak with him. An investigator sat in the room taking notes as Doll and the friend spoke: As the court described, Doll told his visitor that “the case was ‘open and shut’ and he would be going to jail; and he would probably get what he deserved.”
Doll’s defense team argued that these statements should not have been admissible in court because the investigator’s presence essentially turned the conversation into an interrogation without counsel.
The high court ruled, however, that the statements were voluntary, and therefore valid at trial.
One judge, Justice Jenny Rivera, concurred with her colleagues for the most part, but offered a separate opinion disagreeing with certain aspects of the decision: Once the deputies found the body, Rivera wrote, Doll’s rights to counsel should have been restored; the investigator, the judge added, wrongly exploited the arrival of Doll’s visitor.
“After the emergency ended, the police continued to act in disregard of defendant’s prior demands to speak with his lawyer and undermined his right to counsel,” Rivera stated.
Even then, Rivera agreed that Doll’s conviction should stand.
The statements recorded under these questionable circumstances did not contribute to the conviction, Rivera wrote, “as made immensely clear by the record and … the evidence.”