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Supreme Court Clarifies Suspect's Right to Lawyer

April 03, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court made it easier Monday for the police to question crime suspects without their lawyers, ruling that the lawyer who is representing a defendant for one crime need not be there when police ask him about a related second crime.

The 5-4 ruling makes clear that the 6th Amendment's "right to counsel" does not mean a lawyer must always be contacted when police want to question his client.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, speaking for the conservative majority, said police should not be deterred from talking with suspects and persuading the guilty to confess to their crimes.

"The Constitution does not negate society's interest in the ability of police to talk to witnesses and suspects," he said.

A suspect has a right to remain silent and may refuse to answer questions until he speaks with a lawyer. But the police need not go further and bring in the suspect's lawyer if they are asking about a new crime, even if it grows out of the same incident, the court said.

Monday's ruling is more of a clarification than a major change, one criminal law expert said.

"This is not a radical alteration of the law," said Eric Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor.

But the court's narrowed definition of the right to counsel will give police somewhat more leeway to question suspects without their lawyers present, he added.

The ruling reinstates the murder conviction and death sentence of Raymond Cobb, a Texas man who confessed to police that he had killed a neighbor and her baby daughter while he was stealing a stereo from their home.

Earlier, Cobb had been indicted in the burglary and was given a lawyer. More than a year later, police got a tip and brought him in for questioning in the murders. He confessed.

The Texas court of criminal appeals overturned his conviction on the grounds that police should not have questioned Cobb without his lawyer present. Its judges reasoned that the burglary and the murders grew out of the same incident. "Once the right to counsel attaches to the offense charged [it extends] to any other offense that is very closely related," the state judges said.

Texas prosecutors appealed last year, and the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision in Texas vs. Cobb, 99-1702.

Rehnquist described the right to counsel as "offense specific."

"Burglary and capital murder are not the same offense," he said. Although Cobb could not be questioned about the burglary without his lawyer, the same was not true for the murders, Rehnquist concluded.

His opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Monday's ruling is a follow-up to a decision by the high court last year that upheld the famous Miranda warnings.

Those rights, including the right to remain silent, grew out of the 5th Amendment's clause that says no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." This is often referred to as the right against self-incrimination.

In June, the court upheld the Miranda warnings by a surprisingly strong 7-2 margin, with only Scalia and Thomas in dissent.

But a week later, the court took up the Texas vs. Cobb case to clarify the reach of the 6th Amendment. It says that the accused shall "have the assistance of counsel for his defense."

Since 1963, the court has said that this means the government must provide a lawyer to a defendant who asks for one.

But the justices have remained divided on when lawyers must be involved in police questioning. Some past opinions have suggested that once a suspect has a lawyer, the police must speak first with his lawyer. But other decisions have taken a more limited view of the lawyer's role.

In dissent in Texas vs. Cobb, the four liberal justices said the court should have barred the police from going around the suspect's lawyer. "The 6th Amendment right to counsel plays a central role in ensuring the fairness of criminal proceedings in our system," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Joining him were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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