The Supreme Court heard a very important argument this week in the case of Maryland v. Shatzer. It was one of those situations where the oral argument makes a huge difference in the outcome of the case. We read the briefs earlier this month, and remarked to colleagues that both sides’ arguments seemed eminently reasonable. So reasonable that we couldn’t form a strong opinion either way.
But the oral arguments convinced us thoroughly: Both sides are stupid.
The case involves custodial interrogation, and whether and when it can be started again after someone has asked for a lawyer.
When someone is in custody, and they ask for a lawyer, interrogation is supposed to stop. If the police keep questioning anyway, then the defendant’s answers cannot be used to prove the case against him.
So even if someone confesses to the crime at that point, the confession cannot be used to prove he did it. Even if there is no evidence of duress, and there is every reason to believe that the confession is perfectly reliable, it cannot be used.
The underlying policy is that our criminal justice system puts a greater value on not overriding someone’s free will. We don’t want people to be forced to hang themselves. Getting into someone’s mind, and making them testify against themselves, against their will, is abhorrent to us. It reeks of torture, the Inquisition and Star Chamber.
That explains why custodial interrogation gets the Miranda rights, but there is no similar concern with taking non-testimonial evidence from someone against their will. A breathalyzer, a blood test, a voice exemplar, a vial of spit — we don’t really care whether you want to provide the evidence or not. The evidence exists independently of your free will. But a confession during interrogation is solely a matter of free will.
And confessions are dramatic evidence, to be sure. Once evidence of a confession comes in at trial, it’s nigh impossible for a jury to think the defendant didn’t do it. It’s a game-ending bit of evidence, in most cases.
Police custody, in and of itself, is such an extreme and distressing situation that the law just presumes it to be coercive. If an objectively reasonable person would not have thought he was free to leave, then he’s being compelled to sit there and deal with the cops. There’s compulsion, because the cops can keep questioning you until you break, and confess. Maybe it’s a true confession, and maybe you’re just saying it to make it all stop, but either way your free will was overridden.
And so we have the Miranda rule, which says that defendants must be informed of their right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer present during any custodial questioning. If someone’s questioned in custody without being given these warnings — even if they’re a respected jurist who already knew them — then his answers cannot be used against him. And if he is given the warnings, and exercises his right to remain silent or his right to counsel, but the police keep questioning him, then his answers cannot be used against him.
If the defendant says he won’t talk without a lawyer present, then allquestioning must cease. This is a per se exclusion, period. The police cannot re-start questioning unless the defendant himself initiates further discussion. Unlike the right to silence, which can be waived down the road after new Mirandawarnings, the right to a lawyer once asserted can never be waived again, no matter how many times the police re-Mirandize him. It can only be waived if the attorney is actually present at the time. That’s the principal rule of Edwards.
(Note that asking for a lawyer here is the same as saying you won’t talk without a lawyer present. Unlike the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, where once you’ve actually been charged with a crime you’re entitled to have a lawyer provided, this is the Fifth Amendment right to counsel. The cops don’t have to get you a lawyer, they just have to stop questioning you until you get one.)
This is a bright-line rule. Our jurisprudence likes bright-line rules here. We don’t want the cops to have to think about what they can and cannot do; we want them to know. We don’t want a balancing test of competing principles, because that means the courts would have to get involved and decide what can and cannot be done. It would have to be decided after the fact, on a case-by-case basis. Without a bright-line rule, the police would probably engage in more improper interrogations than otherwise, because who knows what some judge down the road might think was okay? And who knows whether the case would even get that far?
So bright-line rules here protect defendants’ interests, police interests, and the courts’ interests. And Edwards is nothing if not a bright-line rule.
The problem with bright-line rules is that they are absolute, they have no exceptions, and so unless they are narrowly-tailored they can have absurd results.
And that is why this week the Supreme Court heard the case of Maryland v. Shatzer.
Six years ago, Michael Shatzer was in state prison, serving a lengthy sentence. Meanwhile, a social worker got a report that Shatzer had (before going to prison, obviously) forced his then-three-year-old son to perform fellatio on him. The social worker told the cops, and an officer came to the prison to talk to Shatzer about it.
Shatzer was taken to an interrogation room, and was given his Miranda rights. Shatzer asked for a lawyer, and the officer ended the interrogation. The officer went away, and Shatzer was taken out of the interrogation room and returned to his regular custody. The investigation was eventually closed.
Nearly three years passed. Shatzer remained in prison.
Now his son was a few years older, and was able to give more details about what had happened to him. The police began a new investigation, which was assigned to a new police officer.
The new officer went to the prison, Shatzer was taken to the interrogation room, and the officer Mirandized him.
This time, Shatzer waived his rights, and agreed to speak with the officer. He flatly denied the allegations that he had forced his son to perform fellatio on him. But he did admit to having masturbated in front of his little boy.
A few days later, the questioning continued. Shatzer was Mirandized again, and he again waived his rights. He took a polygraph test and failed it. Then he started crying and said “I didn’t force him. I didn’t force him.”
At this point, he finally asked for a lawyer, and the questioning ended.
Shatzer was prosecuted for sexually abusing his son. He tried to suppress his statements, on the grounds that he should never have been questioned the second time, under the Edwards rule. He’d asked for a lawyer, and that per se prohibition never evaporated.
The trial court said no, the statements could come in, because the intervening three years constituted a “break in custody” that ended the Edwards prohibition on further questioning. Custody had ended, so the compulsory situation had gone away. The new questioning was a new custodial interrogation justifying a new Miranda warning that was properly waived.
After Shatzer got convicted, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that the passage of time cannot constitute a break in custody. The court held that, if there is a break-in-custody exception to Edwards, it first of all would have to mean something different than the break-in-custody exception for the right to remain silent, and secondly it wouldn’t have existed here anyway when Shatzer had remained in prison the whole time.
The state appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Edwards prohibition must evaporate over time, so that a substantial lapse of time between interrogations would allow the cops to re-Mirandize and try again. The point of Edwards is to prevent the cops from “badgering” a defendant into answering questions without a lawyer, the state said. (At the end of its brief, Maryland even suggested that the bright-line rule ought to be overturned.)
Shatzer’s brief argued that the bright-line rule had to be maintained, to ensure that defendants aren’t coerced into making confessions. If a defendant asks for a lawyer, and all he gets is another reading of his rights, he’s hardly going to expect a second request for a lawyer to be effective, and so he might as well speak. It would undermine the whole point. And if a “break in custody” is all it takes to restart the Edwards rule, then all the cops would have to do is release, rearrest and repeat until the defendant finally gave in.
Both merits briefs seemed eminently reasonable.
But the oral arguments were frankly idiotic. Both sides made absolutely unreasonable claims that could only undermine their arguments.
For example, Chief Justice Roberts let Maryland’s A.G. get three sentences out before cutting to the point: “A break in custody of one day, do you think that should be enough?” Maryland’s response: Yes.
Roberts pressed on: “So what if it’s repeatedly done? You know, you bring him in, you give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk,’ you let him go. You bring him in, give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk.” You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says ‘all right, I’ll talk.” Maryland’s response: “We would suggest that the break of custody would be the end of the Edwards irrebuttable presumption.”
Shatzer’s position was even worse, if you can believe it.
The Public Defender opened her mouth to speak, and Justice Alito jumped down her throat. Her first words were that the Court couldn’t create any exceptions to the rule. Alito said, hold on, let’s say “someone is taken into custody in Maryland in 1999 and questioned for joy riding, [invokes his right to counsel, is] released from custody, and then in 2009 is taken into custody and questioned for murder in Montana…. Now does the Edwards rule apply to the second interrogation?” The lawyer’s response: “Yes it does, Justice Alito.”
As one might expect, the justices went to town on the lawyers. Scalia, as usual, got in some good laugh lines at their expense. We’ll leave the entire oral argument to your own reading enjoyment (you can read it here), but these opening exchanges sum it up pretty well.
Maryland’s position is idiotic. They want a bright-line rule that any break in custody ends the Edwards prohibition. It would allow precisely the catch-and-release badgering that Roberts suggested. They argued that, during the release period, if the defendant didn’t go out and get a lawyer, then they’ve essentially revoked the request to have an attorney present at any future questioning.
Shatzer’s position is equally idiotic, if not more so. He wants a bright-line rule that any invocation of the right to counsel essentially immunizes a defendant from any further police questioning in any subsequent action anywhere, for the rest of his life, whether or not the police could have even known about his prior invocation of the right. A police officer in Alaska would have to ascertain whether a suspect had ever been interrogated by police anywhere else in the country at any time in the suspect’s life, and whether the suspect had asked for a lawyer then. That’s flatly impossible and unrealistic.
Both of the parties claim that the existing bright-line rule might create absurdities in theory. To prevent them, they each propose reductio ad absurdum rules at the extreme ends of the spectrum, guaranteed to create absurdities in practice. Well done, folks.
(The lawyer for the United States, as amicus, did make an important point — that the whole purpose is to make sure people aren’t being compelled to incriminate themselves against their will — but the rest of his time was eaten up by nonsense about how long a break in custody would count as enough of a break to evaporate an assertion of the right to counsel.)
So what should the rule actually be? Seriously, this is not rocket surgery here. The answer seems perfectly obvious:
1) If a suspect was in custody, was read his Miranda rights, and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to have a lawyer present during questioning…
2) And if there was a break in custody, so that an objectively reasonable person would have felt free to leave his questioners…
3) Then there is a rebuttable presumption that his invoked right to counsel continues to be invoked with respect to any subsequent questioning about the same underlying allegations.
4) The state can rebut this presumption with facts that demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that the suspect no longer desired the presence of counsel during questioning. (This will necessarily be extremely rare, though not at all inconceivable.)
The rule could be streamlined even further, by deleting the phrase “there is a rebuttable presumption that” from #3, and deleting #4 altogether.
This rule provides all the protections that defendants, law enforcement and the courts require. At the same time, it avoids the absurdities of the existing bright-line rule, and of the more extreme bright-line rules proposed by the parties in this case.