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Appellate court overturns conviction in Tri-Valley police chase over improper questioning

Justices side with defendant that interview with CHP officer should have been excluded from jury
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A defendant found guilty and sentenced to prison for leading law enforcement on a freeway chase between San Ramon and Dublin three years ago has had that conviction overturned by the California Court of Appeal, citing improper questioning from an officer after the arrest.

A Contra Costa County jury convicted Chinedu Nwuzi of evading a peace officer with "wanton disregard for the safety of others" and evading a peace officer while driving against traffic after a trial that included evidence from the defendant's subsequent interview with a California Highway Patrol officer occurring seconds after Nwuzi asked to speak with an attorney.

The appellate court determined the trial court erred in allowing the interview statements to go before the jury because although Nwuzi initiated the follow-up conversation, CHP Officer Chris Bruce failed to establish the arrestee was waiving his Miranda rights after invoking his Fifth Amendment right to legal counsel just nine seconds earlier.

"Here, the circumstances show that the CHP officer engaged in questioning that was reasonably likely to elicit incriminating information after defendant clearly invoked his right to counsel, and the questioning had the direct effect of eliciting incriminating information," the First District Court of Appeal, Division Four ruled unanimously on Feb. 2.

The opinion was authored by Associate Justice Tracie L. Brown and signed in concurrence by Presiding Justice Stuart R. Pollak and Associate Justice Jon B. Streeter. The case was formally completed on April 6.

The appellate court's decision reversed Nwuzi's conviction after he'd already completed the two-year prison term he was sentenced to. It would remain Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton's decision whether to retry the case without the follow-up CHP interview as evidence.

"Unfortunately, I do not know what happens from here," said Kelly Woodruff, from California Appellate Law Group LLP, which represented Nwuzi on appeal. "The District Attorney has the option to retry him, although I highly doubt they will since the other evidence was very weak and circumstantial. As for recourse, I simply don't know."

The DA's Office had not yet returned a request for comment as of Friday afternoon.

The case against Nwuzi began on March 27, 2019, with law enforcement on alert for a suspect matching his description involved in a potential domestic violence situation in a car.

One 911 call that morning reported a Black man with dreadlocks at approximately 6 feet tall who was driving a vehicle with a passenger who was screaming in the front seat, and a second caller described the passenger as a woman with long brown hair that she said she'd seen the man pulling, according to the court record.

Bruce stopped a suspect and passenger matching the callers' descriptions near Windemere Parkway in San Ramon following a dispatch notice to be on the alert for two people matching their descriptions in a gold-colored sedan that was driving recklessly. While Bruce waited for an additional officer to arrive, the driver sped away, leading Bruce on a chase that he terminated for safety reasons as the driver continued towards Interstate 580, according to the court record.

Two people matching the callers' descriptions arrived at Paws About Town in Dublin shortly later, and used the store's phone before heading towards the West Dublin-Pleasanton BART Station.

One employee from the store noticed a sedan that was later identified as the one Bruce had stopped on the highway outside. Nwuzi and the passenger were later found by police, with Nwuzi being taken into custody and questioned by Bruce, according to the court record.

It was issues surrounding Bruce's subsequent questioning that led to the overturning of Nwuzi's felony conviction for the incident this year.

"Importantly, prior to the impermissible questioning, Bruce told defendant that his car was found abandoned on the freeway, and defendant maintained it had been stolen," the appellate court stated. "The CHP officer then invited defendant to explain what happened with the accident, relayed that a witness had linked defendant to the crash scene, and inquired whether defendant denied being there."

In particular the justices honed in on the fact that during initial questioning from Bruce, Nwuzi had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and maintained that he wanted to speak to an attorney on multiple occasions.

But nine seconds after this, Nwuzi called Bruce over to talk, which led to an exchange in which Nwuzi explained that he was concerned about another felony conviction, which would interfere with the pending end date of his existing parole.

"Although defendant invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in immediate response and the CHP officer ceased his questioning, a mere nine seconds passed between the time the CHP officer stopped speaking and the time defendant called Bruce over," the ruling said.

Nwuzi told Bruce that while he had fled, he said it was the passenger who had been yelling at him to drive, and that he had no reason to run from the police at that time, according to the court record. Both men were congenial in the documented exchange, with Bruce expressing sympathy toward Nwuzi, and explaining that responding to incidents of suspected domestic violence were just part of the job.

"Oh, she was telling you to go? You see that's bad on her," Bruce told Nwuzi.

While Nwuzi's defense argued that information learned in the follow-up exchange wasn't admissible as evidence, given Bruce's failure to "re-Mirandize" Nwuzi and thereby formally re-establish questioning, the trial judge in Contra Costa County Superior Court ruled that the exchange had met the criteria for re-initiating questioning. The evidence was subsequently presented to the trial jury, and the prosecutor argued that Nwuzi's statements amounted to admission of guilt.

"Reviewing the entire portions that have been submitted to me at least -- that's all I can do is evaluate this record -- is that I am finding that the defendant did reinitiate the interview," the trial judge ruled in an evidentiary hearing before the trial.

The appellate court found the trial court erred and should have disallowed the subsequent interview as a Fifth Amendment violation, following a notice of appeal and ensuing process that was initiated by Nwuzi in March 2020 after his conviction. The case was argued orally before the justices in January.

"Even when a defendant effectively initiates further discussion, where reinterrogation follows, the burden remains upon the prosecution to show that subsequent events indicated a waiver of the Fifth Amendment right to have counsel present during the interrogation," the justices stated.

Editor's note: Editor Jeremy Walsh contributed to this story.