Monday, March 15, 2010

Tie Goes to the Prosecution

The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
March 9, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two recent decisions that affect the rights of suspected offenders pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Both decisions went in favor of the government. The Court ruled that a suspect’s request for an attorney does not go on indefinitely and that a police officer does not need to use specific language to inform a suspect of his Miranda rights.
Miranda v. Arizona is the landmark Supreme Court decision that has become a part of American culture. Miranda’s conversion from legal holding to cultural icon is due mainly to the nation’s insatiable appetite for television crime dramas. Everyone with a TV has heard Miranda warnings; “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you, you have the right to an attorney, if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you.”
What did Miranda do to earn his place in the American consciousness? In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested for robbery. While in the midst of a custodial interrogation by police he confessed to raping an 18 year-old woman. At trial, prosecutors offered his confession into evidence. Miranda was convicted of rape and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. Miranda appealed and his case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Miranda and suppressed his confession. The court imposed the following procedures to safeguard a suspect’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination: the person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.
Those rights have been printed on wallet sized cards and have been carried by police officers for more than 40 years. However, Miranda has been continually tested and at times expanded and restricted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions are two in a long line of cases examining Miranda and its progeny.
Last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland v. Shatzer, No. 08-860 (2010) imposes a time limit on a presumption established by the Court nearly 30 years ago in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981).
In Edwards, the petitioner was questioned by the police until he said that he wanted an attorney. Questioning then ceased, but the next day, police officers returned to the jail to again talk with Edwards. The police informed him of his Miranda rights. He said he was willing to talk and police obtained his confession. The trial court denied Edward’s motion to suppress his confession. The appellant courts agreed.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In establishing the Edwards rule, the Court held once an accused invoked his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation a valid waiver of that right could not be later established. The rule created a presumption that once a suspect invoked his right to the presence of counsel pursuant to Miranda, any waiver of that right in response to a subsequent police attempt at custodial interrogation was involuntary.
In Maryland v. Shatzer, Michael Shatzer was in prison when the police questioned him about the sexual assault of his son. After being read his Miranda warnings he invoked his right to legal counsel and the interrogation ceased. Thirty-months later the police returned to interview him. Shatzer was, again, Mirandized and confessed to assaulting his son. Shatzer appealed and his confession was tossed out by the state court pursuant to the Edwards rule.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing on behalf of the majority in Shatzer, wrote that the Edwards rule should not act as an “eternal” bar against further police questioning. Scalia believed that the thirty-month break in custody was enough. However, Scalia went further. Those suspects, who have been released from custodial interrogation for at least 14 days, could be returned to custody and if they did not again invoke counsel could be interrogated and any inculpatory statement could be used at trial. Shatzer does not overrule Edwards, but appears to provide a time frame to rebut the presumption created by Edwards.
The Court’s bright-line rule of 14 days in Shatzer is surprising in light of the Court’s decision one day earlier in Florida v. Powell, No. 08-1175 (2010). Kevin Powell was arrested in 2004 by the Tampa Police. He was taken into custody during a robbery investigation. A gun was later found in his girlfriend’s apartment. Powell was prohibited from possessing a firearm due to his history of felony convictions. After he was told by police that he had, “The right to a lawyer before answering any of our questions,” he confessed, without counsel, to having the gun.
Powell successfully had his confession suppressed by the trial court and the appellant courts agreed. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In an opinion written for a 7-2 majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The four warnings Miranda requires are invariable, but this court has not dictated the words in which the essential information must be conveyed.”
Justice Ginsburg went on to write that a police officer’s warnings need not have the precision of a legal document, “But we decline to declare its precise formulation necessary to meet Miranda’s requirements.” The Supreme Court left it to the lower courts to decide, when police officers ad lib, if the Miranda warnings are adequate.
When contrasting the two decisions, handed down only 24 hours apart, it is striking to see how the Court went in two very different directions. On one day the court declines to add precision to probably the best known legal language ever established by the Court and literally the next day the Court establishes an arbitrary bright-line rule for conducting custodial interrogations.
The Court could have done exactly the opposite and been quite reasonable in doing so. The court could have ruled that the iconic language of Miranda must be uttered with precision and that the lower courts can decide on a case-by-case basis a reasonable time between the first and second custodial interrogation.

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