WASHINGTON — In a series of little-noticed rulings over the last year, the Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly narrow interpretation of its controversial Miranda decision, upholding the use of criminal confessions even when police have deceived suspects or their attorneys.
In Miranda vs. Arizona in 1966, the Supreme Court held that police, before questioning suspects, must tell them of their right to remain silent and their right to consult a lawyer.
The new rulings narrowing that precedent represent at least partial victories for Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who has railed against Miranda on grounds--disputed by many criminal justice experts--that it decreases the chances of obtaining convictions against criminals.
Lower Courts Reversed
Today's court majority, led by William H. Rehnquist, who was sworn in as chief justice in September, says the Miranda ruling requires that suspects be read their rights--but little more. Acting on appeals from the Justice Department, the high court has repeatedly reversed lower courts that have thrown out confessions they considered in violation of the Miranda ruling.
"Miranda protects defendants against government coercion leading them to surrender their rights (against self-incrimination) protected by the Fifth Amendment; it goes no further than that," Rehnquist wrote in December.
As recently as 1981, the court expanded Miranda's reach by holding that the questioning of a suspect must stop as soon as the suspect requests a lawyer. In 1984, however, the justices began to narrow their view of Miranda by ruling that in emergencies, police may question suspects before reading them their rights.
Divided Over Strategy
That is not enough for Meese, who has complained that Miranda rights still prevent nearly all confessions. Although Meese's avowed goal is to overturn Miranda, Justice Department attorneys remain divided over a strategy to achieve it.
In a report prepared for Meese last year, a faction led by Assistant Atty. Gen. Stephen Markman urged an all-out attack. The department, Markman said, should find a case that poses the flaws of Miranda so clearly that the court will reverse its 1966 ruling.
But Terry H. Eastland, Meese's spokesman, said Markman's plan is not the department's policy. "On the practical side," he said, "there is a difference of opinion on what should be done."
And Solicitor General Charles Fried, who represents the government before the Supreme Court, denied that the department has a "grand plan to overturn Miranda."
Other Attacks Fail
Last year, Fried failed in his frontal attacks on the court's past rulings legalizing abortion and authorizing affirmative action. In this term, the solicitor general has been more cautious--and more successful--in urging only that the Miranda ruling be limited, not discarded.
"It depends on whether you see Miranda as a grand principle to be cherished and expanded, or a particular statement which is to be treated in a narrow, literal way," Fried said.
The Supreme Court recently has adopted the narrow view--upholding the Miranda warnings but refusing to go beyond them. Writing for a 6-3 majority last March, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the courts must not casually block police efforts to gain confessions from suspects.
"Admissions of guilt are more than merely desirable," she said. "They are essential to society's compelling interest in finding, convicting and punishing those who violate the law." At the same time, O'Connor wrote, the Miranda rules provide a reasonable check on police questioning "by giving the defendant the power to exert some control over the course of the interrogation."
The Miranda decision "strikes the proper balance between society's legitimate law enforcement interests and the protection of the defendant's Fifth Amendment rights," she said.
But the court's liberals insist that the majority is ignoring the essence of the 1966 decision, which said a confession must be "voluntary, knowing and intelligent." Moreover, they charge that the court is disregarding its own 1981 ruling that questioning must stop after a suspect asks for a lawyer.
In the case decided last March, a Rhode Island man was picked up for questioning on a burglary charge. After being read his Miranda rights, he agreed to be questioned without an attorney. He was detained and questioned off and on for 21 hours.
During that time, police obtained new evidence linking the suspect to a murder, and a lawyer retained by the suspect's family was told by police in a telephone call that the questioning had ended for that day. It had not, however, and later in the evening the suspect confessed to the murder.
Distaste Over Misleading
O'Connor, although expressing her "distaste for the deliberate misleading" of the attorney, said the defendant had waived his right to remain silent or to have the attorney present.