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Supreme Court puts expiration date on 'right to remain silent'

The justices rule that a suspect who invokes that protection can be questioned again after 14 days.

February 25, 2010|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — A crime suspect who invokes his "right to remain silent" under the famous Miranda decision can be questioned again after 14 days, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. And if he freely agrees to talk then, his incriminatory statements can be used against him.

In a 9-0 decision in a Maryland child-abuse case, the high court overturned a rule set in 1981 that barred the police from questioning a suspect once he had asked to remain silent and to speak with a lawyer.

Known as the "Edwards rule," it was intended to prevent investigators from "badgering" a suspect who was held in jail after he had invoked his Miranda rights. In some cases, police had awakened a suspect in the middle of the night and asked him again to waive his rights and to admit to a crime.

In recent years, the rule has been understood to prevent police from ever requestioning a freed suspect, even for other crimes in other places. The justices said Wednesday that although the rule made sense for suspects who were held in jail, it did not make sense for suspects who had gone free.

"In a country that harbors a large number of repeat offenders, the consequence [of this no-further-questioning rule] is disastrous," Justice Antonin Scalia said.

If there has been a "break in custody" and the suspect has gone free, Scalia said, the police should be allowed to speak with him after some period of time.

"It seems to us that period is 14 days," he said. "That provides plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life [and] to consult with friends and counsel."

Then, if the suspect waives his rights and agrees to talk, any statement he makes can be used against him, the court said.

The ruling in Maryland vs. Shatzer reinstates a child-abuse conviction against a Maryland man who made incriminatory statements to a state investigator 2 1/2 years after he had first been questioned by police.

At the time of the initial questioning, Michael Shatzer refused to talk without first consulting a lawyer. He was later sent to state prison on an unrelated child-abuse charge.

When a new investigator asked him about the original allegation, he agreed to speak and admitted to abusing his son. However, he won a ruling from the Maryland courts that said his statements could not be used against him because he had been questioned without his lawyer.

The high court overturned the lower court decision and ruled that Shatzer's incriminatory statements could be used to convict him.

Though all nine justices agreed on the outcome, two did not agree with the 14-day rule. Justice John Paul Stevens said the time was too short, and Justice Clarence Thomas said it was too long.

david.savage@latimes.com

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