ERIC ADAM GRUENINGER v. DIRECTOR, VA. DEP’T OF CORRECTIONS, NO. 14-7072

Decided: February 9, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings in light of this opinion.

In 2009, Eric Adam Grueninger was arrested by Virginia police for sexually abusing his fourteen-year-old daughter. Grueninger was read his Miranda rights during his initial interview with police and told police that he needed an attorney. Three days later, Grueninger was re-interviewed by a police officer without an attorney present. During this re-interview Grueninger confessed to performing various sexual acts with his daughter and was ultimately tried on sexual abuse and child pornography charges. During the trial, Grueninger’s attorney failed to file a timely motion to suppress the confession obtained by police in the re-interview, and the Commonwealth ultimately relied on the confession in securing his conviction.

On state collateral review Grueninger protested the admittance of the confession and argued that his attorney’s failure to file a timely motion to suppress the confession under Edwards v. Arizona, which prohibits police interrogation after an invocation of Miranda rights, constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The circuit court rejected Grueninger’s claim and affirmed his conviction, holding that Grueninger had not been “interrogated” under the standards of Edwards, and as such his statements would not have been suppressed had his attorney so timely moved. The Virginia Supreme Court subsequently denied Grueninger’s petition for appeal.

Then, in 2011, Grueninger filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Hanover Circuit Court. The petition was ultimately denied as the circuit court held that Grueninger’s confession at the re-interview did not fall under the parameters set in Edwards because Grueninger’s confession during the second interview was spontaneous or voluntary. Once again Grueninger appealed the dismissal of his petition, both in state and federal court, which was subsequently denied after review by both the Virginia Supreme Court and the Eastern District of Virginia. The Fourth Circuit granted a partial certificate of apealability as to two issues: “(1) Whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to seek pretrial suppression of Grueninger’s [inculpatory] statement under Edwards v. Arizona, . . . and (2) if so, whether counsel’s ineffectiveness demonstrates cause and prejudice to excuse Grueninger’s procedural default of his claim that his statements were unconstitutionally obtained in violation of Edwards.”

Applying the principle from Brumfield of “looking through” the Virginia Supreme Court’s lack of reasoning on Grueninger’s issue on appeal, the Fourth Circuit turned its attention to assessing the circuit court’s reasoning on denying Grueninger the relief that he sought. Upon review, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the circuit court made an unreasonable error in determining that Grueninger’s motion to suppress, had it been filed in a timely manner, would have been denied anyways because the second interview did not fall under the Edwards guidelines of interrogation. Instead, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that presenting a suspect with new arrest warrants and asking about the alleged charges does in fact constitute “interrogation.” The Court relied on Innis, in which the Supreme Court held that interrogation includes not only “express questioning” but also its “functional equivalent.”

The Court then dismissed the Commonwealth’s assertion that the failure of Grueninger’s counsel to file a timely motion to suppress would not have constituted ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland. Instead, the Court held that a timely motion likely would have led to the suppression of the confession and also would likely have had at least “some substance,” if not a pervasive effect, on the outcome of the trial. The Court held that there was a “reasonable probability” that Grueninger’s confession had an effect on the outcome of the trial on the sexual abuse charges but not the child pornography charges. Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Grueninger’s habeas petition and remanded for a new trial on the sexual abuse charges without the use of the confession and affirmed Grueninger’s child pornography charges.

Opinion

Brandon Gregg

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