At first glance, a decision last week upholding the conviction of a Maryland child molester might seem to undermine the Supreme Court's historic 1966 Miranda decision requiring that police advise suspects in custody of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney. In fact, the court deftly dealt with a perplexing issue in a way that respected not only Miranda, a ruling now accepted even by once-skeptical police, but an important follow-up decision.
In 2003, Michael Shatzer, who was in prison on an unrelated charge, was questioned about whether he had molested his son. Under a 1981 Supreme Court ruling, police must stop their interrogation when a suspect asks for a lawyer, as Shatzer did. The police did not question him further until 2006, when, after reading Shatzer his rights again, an officer elicited incriminating statements. Shatzer was convicted.
Shatzer appealed, citing the 1981 ruling. At the Supreme Court, the justices were incredulous when his lawyer argued that police couldn't approach a suspect again once he had asked for a lawyer, no matter how much time had passed. On Wednesday, they unanimously denied Shatzer's claim. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected the idea that, by asking for a lawyer, a suspect had an "eternal" right not to be approached by police and asked again if he wanted to waive his rights. But Scalia acknowledged that police would create a coercive atmosphere if they repeatedly tried to interrogate a suspect while he was in continuous custody. The court's solution: Police can initiate a second conversation with a suspect only after he has been free from custody for 14 days. "Confessions obtained after a two-week break in custody and a waiver of Miranda rights are most unlikely to be compelled," Scalia wrote.
We'd prefer a longer "break" in custody than 14 days, but the court commendably has drawn a bright line rather than allow for a case-by-case determination of whether a suspect was badgered by a further attempt at questioning. Equally important, the decision doesn't relieve police of their obligation to read a suspect his rights again if questioning resumes after two weeks or longer.
One aspect of this ruling is disturbing. Between 2003 and 2006, Shatzer wasn't in fact free. Though he wasn't being questioned about molesting his son, he was in prison for another crime and thus more susceptible to police pressure than someone who, in Scalia's words, "has returned to normal life for some time before the later interrogation." Imprisonment is not "normal life." The court would have been truer to Miranda if it had recognized that, in this case, there was no gap in custody.