PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Sioux Falls police didn’t violate a rape suspect’s due-process right, according to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court publicly released a split opinion Thursday saying that a statement Fitsum Ghebre made to police could be used in court.

The justices reversed a decision by now-retired Circuit Judge Bradley Zell that the December 7, 2020, statement was inadmissible.

Judge Zell had determined that police violated the due process protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Police met with Ghebre to get a DNA swab. The meeting was recorded on an officer’s body camera.

Justice Janine Kern wrote the Supreme Court opinion overturning the judge’s ruling.

“Based on the record before us and the lack of improper police pressure surrounding Ghebre’s encounter with law enforcement, we conclude that the officers’ conduct and the circumstances of the encounter did not overpower Ghebre’s free will,” Justice Kern wrote.

“The circumstances of Ghebre’s encounter do not indicate improper police pressure,” the justice continued. “He was not detained for a long period of time nor was he exposed to prolonged or
repeated questioning. Rather, the video of Ghebre’s interaction with law enforcement indicates that it lasted no longer than nine and a half minutes, five of which Ghebre spent sitting unrestrained in the front passenger seat of Detective (Christopher) Schoepf’s unmarked duty vehicle. And during these five minutes, Ghebre spoke with Detective Schoepf for only two minutes—the majority of which occurred after the Detective handed Ghebre his license and told him he was ‘free to go.’

“Furthermore,” the justice continued, “upon consideration of Ghebre’s personal circumstances,
we are not persuaded that his will was overborne. At the time of the stop, Ghebre was 40 years old and had lived in America for 12 years. The record reflects that Ghebre maintained gainful employment. Furthermore, this was not his first encounter with law enforcement. In the four years leading up to the search warrant, Ghebre had two police encounters, including a DWI charge, where he was required to appear in court.”

Chief Justice Steven Jensen, Justice Patricia DeVaney and Justice Mark Salter joined Justice Kern’s opinion. Justice Scott Myren dissented but didn’t file a written statement.

Justice Kern explained why Judge Zell’s decision was incorrect.

“When reaching its conclusion, the circuit court placed undue weight on Ghebre’s unresponsiveness during the police encounter. Ghebre’s decision to remain silent is not necessarily evidence of an inability to comprehend or process information. Rather, remaining silent in the face of police questioning could reflect a voluntary choice and a nuanced understanding of the situation,” she wrote.

“Further, it appears that the court improperly conflated the Fourteenth Amendment due process analysis with the requirements of Miranda in concluding that it was ‘not persuaded that [Ghebre] fully understood his rights at that time.’ Although Ghebre was not Mirandized before Detective Schoepf’s questions, which is considered under the totality of the circumstances, there was no obligation for law enforcement to ensure that Ghebre knew or understood his rights before
questioning him in a noncustodial setting,” she continued. “And, here, the circuit court determined that Ghebre was not in custody for purposes of Miranda—a decision Ghebre does not contest on appeal. Therefore, Detective Schoepf had no obligation to inform Ghebre of his constitutional rights, let alone ensure he understood them.”