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Warren Demesme (Photo: Courtesy of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office)

Technical legalese and casual slang collided in a Louisiana Supreme Court case last month, when the court ruled that a defendant who asked police “why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog” did not invoke his right to counsel.

Louisiana Associate Supreme Court Justice Scott J. Crichton wrote following an Oct. 27, 2017 decision stemming from an October 2015 police interview of then-22-year-old Warren Demesme, who is accused of aggravated rape and indecent behavior with a juvenile, that Demesme’s request for a “lawyer dog” was ambiguous enough that police were not required to stop questioning him.

“As this Court has written, ‘[i]f a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable police officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking his right to counsel, the cessation of questioning is not required,’” Crichton wrote, citing the 2001 Louisiana Supreme Court case State v. Payne.

The full statement by Demesme that was in question, according to Crichton’s concurrence, was “if y’all, this is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog cause this is not what’s up.” (That spelling and punctuation was provided in a brief by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, according to the Washington Post.) Prosecutors said Demesme later made admissions regarding the crimes, and was subsequently charged.

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision means that the police interview did not violate Edwards v. Arizona, which requires that a police interrogation stop once a defendant invokes their Fifth Amendment right to counsel, and that Demesme’s statements during the interview will be admissible in court for his upcoming trial.

The defendant’s lawyer, Orleans Parish public defender Derwyn D. Bunton, brought the motion to suppress the statements from the trial court, to the appeals court and finally the state Supreme Court, saying his client was “under increased interrogation pressure” and had stated his request “with emotion and frustration,” according to the Washington Post. But all three courts rejected the motion, and Crichton said he wrote his two-paragraph concurrence to “spotlight the very important constitutional issue regarding the invocation of counsel during a law enforcement interview.”

The 1994 Supreme Court case Davis v. United States set the “unambiguous or unequivocal” standard for requests for counsel. Robert L. Davis, accused of beating another man to death with a pool cue, stated “Maybe I should talk to a lawyer,” during questioning—when investigators attempted to clarify the statement he then said “No, I don’t want a lawyer,” at which point questioning resumed for another hour. The Supreme Court ruled that Davis’ initial request was ambiguous and that investigators did not violate his rights by continuing questioning. Crichton also cited the phrase “maybe I should talk to a lawyer” as an example in his concurrence.

The use of slang in legal settings has become an issue in courts before; in 2013, a Wisconsin court cited Urban Dictionary, a website that crowdsources definitions for slang, to define a specific use of the word “jack” in a financial restitution case, according to the New York Times. The same year, a Tennessee court considering a motion to dismiss a sexual harassment claim noted that the Urban Dictionary definition of the phrase “to nut” was “to ejaculate”—the court later rejected the motion to dismiss.

Demesme, of Harvey, Louisiana, is awaiting trial and remains jailed with bond set at $2 million, according to The Times-Picayune. He was first questioned by New Orleans police following allegations of sexual assault by two girls, one under the age of 13. According to authorities, he admitted to sexually assaulting one girl but not the other. If convicted, he could receive a mandatory life sentence. 

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