Police must use Miranda rules, high court says

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Policy of warning suspects survives

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday that police must still warn suspects that they can remain silent and retain lawyers, upholding the Miranda rules that have become hallmarks of interrogations and television shows.

"Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion.

By a 7-2 vote, the justices ended a decades-long legal challenge to the 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona – but not the arguments over what that ruling means for American justice.

"It's a sad day for victims of crime and law-abiding Americans," said Paul Cassell, a lawyer who had urged the high court to overturn Miranda. "The result of the court's opinion is that dangerous criminals will go free because of what are generally described as technicalities."

Supporters of Miranda called those fears overstated. They said the warnings have created more professional police departments, setting down a clear set of rules to ensure that statements to police are truly voluntary.

"It's a useful tool for law enforcement," said James Hundley, the attorney for a Maryland man whose robbery arrest triggered a re-examination of Miranda. "If they follow the rules, they can rest assured their evidence is coming in."

President Clinton also praised Monday's ruling. "They have worked for law enforcement by providing clear standards for our officers, and they have worked to protect the rights of our citizens," Mr. Clinton said of the Miranda warnings.

In ordering a new trial for rape suspect Ernesto Miranda in 1966, Chief Justice Earl Warren listed a specific set of warnings that police officers had to give suspects.

"He must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires," Chief Justice Warren wrote.

Chief Justice Rehnquist recited the Miranda rights in announcing the latest decision, noting that "these forewarnings have echoed through police stations and television screens."

Mr. Miranda was convicted by a second jury and later died in a 1976 bar fight. In the meantime, attorneys began fighting an ideological battle over the ruling that bore his name.

Supporters said the ruling dissuaded police from beating confessions out of suspects. They also argued that the warnings gave force to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which says no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

Opponents of the rule said it created loopholes that defense lawyers exploited to keep confessions and other evidence out of court.

In 1968, Congress passed a law saying Miranda warnings were only one of several factors judges could consider in deciding whether to admit confessions into evidence. Congress said judges could consider the totality of circumstances in deciding whether a defendant spoke voluntarily.

It took 32 years for that federal law to come before the Supreme Court. The opportunity arose with 1997 robbery charges against Maryland resident Charles Dickerson.

A trial judge threw out Mr. Dickerson's statements to the FBI, saying agents failed to read him his rights. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said prosecutors could use the statements, calling them legal and voluntary under the 1968 law.

No second-guessing

In taking up Mr. Dickerson's case, the Supreme Court answered two questions. One was whether Congress had the right to impose its own rules on what defines a voluntary confession, in response to a Supreme Court decision.

The 7-2 majority said no, calling Miranda a constitutional rule that precludes second-guessing by Congress.

"It may not supersede this Court's decisions interpreting and applying the Constitution," Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote.

The justices also said no when asked to overturn Miranda on their own, citing the power of legal precedent.

"Whether or not this court would agree with Miranda's reasoning and its rule in the first instance, stare decisis weighs heavily against overruling it now," Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote.

Stare decisis is Latin for "stand by the decided matter."

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter and John Paul Stevens joined the majority.

Dissenting Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas blasted their colleagues for not overturning Miranda, saying they had converted a "milestone of judicial overreaching" into "judicial arrogance."

Justice Scalia, who wrote the dissenting opinon, argued that the Constitution already forbids forced confession and that the police warnings only encourage defendants not to talk.

"I believe we cannot allow to remain on the books even a celebrated decision – especially a celebrated decision – that has come to stand for the proposition that the Supreme Court has power to impose extra-constitutional constraints upon Congress and the States," Justice Scalia wrote.

Earlier decisions faulted

Justice Scalia also reproached conservative colleagues who had criticized the Miranda ruling in earlier decisions that had eased restrictions on police. Chief Justice Rehnquist called those earlier decisions "refinements" of a basic constitutional rule.

The majority said the Miranda ruling might sometimes free guilty defendants. But they called the warnings easier to follow than the more general rules approved by Congress.

An official with the National Association of Police Organizations said that while officers generally support the warnings, the court's renewal of Miranda will make them more vulnerable to minor, technical violations.

"Miranda has become a vehicle inviting routine efforts to exclude voluntary confessions, and the Dickerson case will only increase the amount of litigation on this point in state and federal courts," executive director Robert Scully said.

Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Miranda rules are easy to understand and remove any doubts about whether a suspect is speaking freely.

"Miranda has worked for both criminal defendants and the police," Mr. Shapiro said.