Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Supremes rule on Miranda

In case you weren't following the news in the early 60's, here's Wikipedia's account of Arizona vs. Ernesto Miranda (pictured left), the case from which a suspect's Miranda Rights derive their name.
On March 13, 1963, Ernesto Arturo Miranda was arrested based on circumstantial evidence linking him to the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old woman 10 days earlier.[1] After two hours of interrogation by police officers, Miranda signed a confession to the rape charge on forms that included the typed statement "I do hereby swear that I make this statement voluntarily and of my own free will, with no threats, coercion, or promises of immunity, and with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me." However, at no time was Miranda told of his right to counsel, and he was not advised of his right to remain silent or that his statements would be used against him during the trial before being presented with the form on which he was asked to write out the confession he had already given orally.
At trial, when prosecutors offered Miranda's written confession as evidence, his court-appointed lawyer, Alvin Moore, objected that because of these facts, the confession was not truly voluntary and should be excluded. Moore's objection was overruled and based on this confession and other evidence, Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 20 to 30 years imprisonment on each charge, with sentences to run concurrently.
Ernesto Miranda's conviction was appealed up the legal chain until it reached the Supreme Court as Miranda v. State of Arizona; Westover v. United States; Vignera v. State of New York; State of California v. Stewart. The Supremes overturned Miranda's conviction on June 13th, 1966, and a suspect's Miranda Rights became entrenched as a part of police procedure.

Yesterday in a 5-to-4 ruling the Supreme Court gave the police much greater room to question suspects within their Miranda Rights. Here's how Nina Totenberg tells the story of the case involved in that decision:
The ruling came in the case of Van Chester Thompkins, one of three men involved in a Michigan shooting. A year after the crime, Thompkins was arrested and interrogated by two Michigan policemen. They advised him of his right to an attorney and his right to remain silent, made sure he spoke English, and questioned him, though they said it was more a "monologue" by the interrogators. For nearly three hours, Thompkins said nothing, except that his chair seat was hard and that he didn't want a peppermint. Finally, one of the policemen asked him: "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" Thompkins answered, "Yes," and that answer was used at his trial to convict him of first-degree murder.
 Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, pointed out that
"Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk to police. Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his 'right to cut off questioning.' Here he did neither, so he did not invoke his right to remain silent."
 The dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor, was cited this way in The Huffington Post:
For Justice Sotomayor, deciding to make suspects speak to have the right to remain silent was a step too far. Sotomayor, the court's newest member, wrote a strongly worded dissent for the court's liberals, saying the majority's decision "turns Miranda upside down."
"Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent – which counterintuitively requires them to speak," she said. "At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."
 Back to Nina Totenberg for some reactions.
"The doctrine makes no sense," says Harvard's professor [William] Stuntz*. "It provides lots of protection to suspects who don't need protecting — to the best educated, and to recidivists who know how to game the system. And it provides no protection to the people who need it most. It's dumb law."
Police officers, though, had a different take on the ruling. Former Newark police Capt. Jon Shane, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, sees the decision as helpful. He says the court has told police "in this decision that someone's silence does not mean that they are protected necessarily by the Miranda warning." He says, "That's a good thing" because it not only gives police greater flexibility in questioning, it makes the process simpler and less likely to provoke legal problems once the case gets to court.
 *usually, according to Ms. Totenberg, considered something of a conservative.
Okay, now it's your turn. Any opinion on this decision or on the current Supreme Court in general?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog and it's diversity of thoughtful discussion!