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Divided High Court Upholds Miranda Warnings

Police may not use confessions elicited before a suspect is advised of his rights.

June 29, 2004|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Miranda warnings Monday, ruling that police officers may not use confessions that they have obtained by questioning suspects first and warning them of their right to remain silent afterward.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court called the police tactic a deliberate effort to skirt the Miranda decision. They threw out a Missouri woman's confession to plotting to cover up the death of her disabled child by setting her mobile home on fire.

However, in a second 5-4 decision, the court upheld the use of physical evidence, in this case a gun, obtained by questioning a suspect without fully warning him of his rights.

In the first ruling, the justices said they were troubled that the police in the case -- and in others from California -- believed that they could fool a suspect into confessing before warning her of her rights.

If the Miranda decision is going to stand, police cannot evade it so easily, the court said.

"A suspect could hardly think he had a genuine right to remain silent," said Justice David H. Souter, if he was told about it after confessing.

"The Miranda rule has become an important and accepted element of the criminal justice system," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and a "deliberate violation of Miranda" cannot stand.

In recent years, police in some states have been encouraged in training sessions to question a suspect in hopes of learning what has happened. Then, if the suspect admits involvement, the officer gives him the warning that his words may be used against him in court. If the suspect agrees to repeat the confession, his words may be used in court, the trainers had suggested.

But in Missouri vs. Seibert, the Supreme Court said this "deliberate two-step strategy" violated the Constitution and its right against self-incrimination. Joining Souter and Kennedy in the majority were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

In the second 5-4 decision, the court said "reliable" physical evidence should not be thrown out simply because it was obtained from a suspect who had not waived his rights.

In the case, police and federal agents in Colorado Springs, Colo., went to arrest Samuel Patane on suspicion of violating a restraining order and harassing a former girlfriend. As they put him in handcuffs, they asked him where his gun was located.

"I am not sure I should tell you anything about the Glock because I don't want you to take it away from me," Patane said.

But when the officer persisted, the suspect said the gun was in the bedroom. The police officers picked it up and, based on this evidence, Patane later was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

However, a federal judge ruled that police violated the Miranda rules by questioning the handcuffed man without fully warning him of his rights. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the evidence must be thrown out and his conviction overturned.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and upheld the conviction. Kennedy proved to be the deciding vote in both cases, writing in U.S. vs. Patane that "reliable physical evidence" should not be thrown out, especially when it was not clear that Patane's rights were violated.

The two 5-4 rulings show that the high court remains closely divided on the wisdom and effectiveness of the Miranda rules.

The 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona was one of the most controversial of the era of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The majority said the right against self-incrimination could be meaningless if suspects in police stations could be pressured to admit to wrongdoing. The dissenters questioned why courts should throw out confessions.

Four years ago, the court faced the question of whether to overrule the Miranda decision. At the time, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a longtime critic, acknowledged that the warnings had become familiar to Americans through televised police dramas. It was too late to overturn the decision, he said for a 7-2 majority.

Nonetheless, many of the justices -- in some instances, a majority -- do not want to apply the rules strictly if it means throwing out the convictions based on confessions.

The Missouri case may be the exception because the police admitted that they were taught to interrogate suspects without warning them of their rights. The deliberate evasion of the law proved to be too much for a narrow majority of the high court.

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