Posts Tagged ‘confessions’

On this latest Miranda thing…

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

So after catching one of the guys thought to have committed the Boston Marathon bombing (and a string of violent acts thereafter), the government said they weren’t going to read him his rights. Not just yet. Invoking the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule, they said they wanted a chance to find out who he was working with, where other bombs might be, etc., before telling him he’s allowed to clam up.

Predictably, a lot of people were upset about this. But why?

Yes, it was wrong of the administration to say that. But not for the reasons everyone’s saying. Not because it’s further eroding our rights (it’s not), but because it’s just stupid.

It conflates intelligence with evidence — stupid. It misses the whole point of Miranda — stupid. It defeats the purpose of intel — stupid. And pisses off those who love the Constitution — stupid.

And of course, it’s nothing new.

About three years ago, the Obama administration made it DOJ policy to permit “unwarned interrogation” not only in situations involving immediate public safety (“where’s the bomb?”), but also cases where cops believe getting intel outweighs your right to remain silent.

The 2010 memorandum states:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

On top of that, the Obama administration wanted Congress to specifically pass legislation allowing longer interrogations before Miranda need be invoked. (A brilliant writer blogged about that memo a couple of years ago, concluding that it was “An Unnecessary Rule.”)

The administration is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Miranda does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. The Fifth Amendment does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. They can interrogate people all they want, in any way they want, and the Constitution doesn’t say jack about it. But if they force you to incriminate yourself against your own will, they’re just not allowed to use those statements against you to prove your guilt in a criminal proceeding. That doesn’t mean they can’t force you to incriminate yourself, and it doesn’t mean they can’t use those statements for other purposes.

But the government wants to be able to do both. It wants to be able to override your free will, force you to condemn yourself, and use your words both to prevent future attacks (laudable) and to convict you so the State can punish you (contemptible).

Their saying this out loud is idiotic, because everyone sees how contemptible it is, and the government looks even more like an enemy of the public, rather than its protector. And of course giving a heads-up to the real bad guys about what we’ll be doing. (And announcing it in a specific case, as they did this week, just lets everyone in the bomber’s organization know that we’re learning everything that guy could tell us. Stupid. You never want the enemy to know how much you know.)

But it’s also stupid because it misses the ENTIRE POINT of Miranda.

Sorry to break this to you, but Miranda isn’t about protecting your rights. It never was.

Miranda is about giving the police a free pass. It always has been.

The Fifth Amendment is there to make sure we don’t have another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its power to override your free will, and make you confess to a crime so it can punish you. Lots of confessions are purely voluntary. In fact, most probably are. But sometimes the government has to force it out of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

But it’s hard for courts to tell voluntary confessions from involuntary ones. They have to look at facts and assess things on a case-by-case basis. That’s hard. And it’s hard for police to know if they’re crossing the line, when the line is different for every individual. So the Miranda rule creates an easy line that applies to everyone:

Say the magic words, and the law presumes that the confession was voluntary.

See how easy that was? Not hard. Easy.

All a cop has to do is recite the Miranda litany as they’re taking a suspect into custody, and BAM! they get to interrogate all they want, and everything the guy says can be used in evidence at his trial.

It is hard to imagine a more pro-law-enforcement rule. In one stroke, Miranda dispensed with actual voluntariness, and replaced it with “as a matter of law” pretend voluntariness.

And yet law enforcement — even our nation’s top officials, who went to law school and everything — astoundingly persist in thinking Miranda is bad for them. They think that, if you mirandize someone, they’ll shut up, and you’ll lose all that delicious intel and lovely evidence. (NYPD officers are actually trained NOT to mirandize people on arrest, for this very reason. Yeah, TV ain’t real life.)

But here’s the kicker: People don’t clam up when they’ve been read their rights. The people who clam up remain silent regardless of whether they’ve been mirandized or not. In fact, there is evidence that people are MORE likely to talk once they’ve been read their rights. They don’t know what those rights mean, but they know they’ve got them, and TV has conditioned them to expect the magic words. So when they hear them, they relax. All is well. Their rights are being acknowledged. And they start blabbing.

So not only do the magic words let you use all those statements, compelled or not, but they actually get the statements flowing.

So wanting to hold off on saying them is just stupid. Counterproductive. Idiotic.

So there’s lots of reasons to dislike what the government is saying in this case. But eroding our rights just isn’t one of them.

You lost those rights in 1966.

Something to Consider Before Speaking to Law Enforcement

Friday, November 12th, 2010

That is all.

Why Innocent People Confess — Update

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Last month, we wrote a piece here on reasons why innocent people wind up confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.  It’s a horrible thought, yet it happens far too often.  (For tips on defending cases involving a confession, see our CLE lecture over at West Legal Ed Center.)

Anyway, there’s a good article in the latest issue of New York Magazine called “I Did It: Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit?”  It’s worth a read, so we figured we’d give you all the link.

Temporary Incomprehension

Monday, October 4th, 2010

The blawgosphere was atwitter recently over that Kentucky murder trial where the defendant had confessed, but claimed it was a false confession, due to “sleep-deprived psychosis” from drinking too much coffee.  The jury didn’t buy it (here’s a short article on it).

Did that case remind anyone else of this short film?

Still Life

It’s no secret that sleep deprivation does crazy things to the brain.  Among other things, it dramatically impairs judgment and cognition, and for this reason has for decades been seen as a highly effective interrogation tool by intelligence agencies around the world.  No matter how well trained, most people are simply going to break after a fairly short period of disorientation and sleep deprivation.  Of course, sleep deprivation also results in hallucinations, extreme discomfort, and memory problems — as well as increased suggestibility — making useful interrogation under such circumstances a job requiring the utmost care and attention.  It’s worse than dealing with a young child (as we all know, children are enormously suggestible, so that their statements can be manipulated unwittingly even by one’s body language and tone of voice).  It’s like questioning a child who is stressing from sheer confusion, and who is also in a hypnotic state.  Suffice it to say that the slightest error by the interrogator can produce completely unreliable results, or at best results that must be artfully interpreted to divine what’s more likely to be the truth.

Suffice it also to say that the vast majority of law enforcement officers do not conduct interrogations with such extreme care.  If any do.

So this this defense, in and of itself, isn’t as laughable as (more…)

Why Innocent People Confess

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

It should come as no surprise to anyone with any experience in criminal law that perfectly innocent people will sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.  Perhaps they were in a suggestible state, and the police led them to believe they’d done it.  Maybe they were broken by the interrogation and said whatever the cops wanted to hear, just to end it.  Maybe they didn’t really confess, but had their words taken out of context (or invented) by the cops.  (For tips on defending cases involving a confession, see our CLE lecture over at West Legal Ed Center.)

In recent years, there has been growing attention to the phenomenon of false confessions, and folks have begun investigating the reasons why an innocent person will not only confess to a crime he didn’t commit, but will often do so with such detail that it seems impossible for them not to have committed it.  The New York Times had a decent article yesterday on this very phenomenon.  The article reports on a study by UVA (wahoowa!) law professor Brandon Garrett, into reasons why an innocent person may sometimes confess with extraordinary detail.

To defense lawyers, the new research is eye opening. “In the past, if somebody confessed, that was the end,” said Peter J. Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, an organization based in Manhattan. “You couldn’t imagine going forward.”

The notion that such detailed confessions might be deemed voluntary because the defendants were not beaten or coerced suggests that courts should not simply look at whether confessions are voluntary, Mr. Neufeld said. “They should look at (more…)

Myth #2: Cops Can’t Lie

Friday, June 18th, 2010

For as long as we can remember, the word on the street has always been that cops cannot lie.  So if you’re doing a drug deal with an undercover cop, and you ask him point blank if he’s a police officer, then he has to tell you the truth.  He might try to technically get out of it by saying yes in a sarcastic tone of voice, but he has to be able to testify later on that he did say he was a cop.

And for as long as we can remember, we thought that was dumber than dirt.  The first time we heard this, back in our dim and distant teens, we imagined something like this:

ruacop

It just made no sense.  And, of course, it’s simply not true.  No undercover cop is ever going to jeopardize his investigation or his safety by admitting to the fact that he (or she) is a cop.  And there is no rule anywhere that says they have to.

But even so, this myth has persisted.  We can’t count how many cases we’ve dealt with where (more…)

How the Court Should Rule in Shatzer

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

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.

Suppressed Jailhouse Confessions Allowed for Impeachment

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

ratted-out.png

The Supreme Court ruled this morning that a confession obtained in violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel is still admissible on cross-examination to impeach a defendant who testified that someone else did it.

Writing for the 7-2 majority in Kansas v. Ventris today was the always-entertaining Justice Scalia. He summed up the facts more pithily that we could, and we’re keen to see if we can figure out to insert block quotes, so here’s Scalia’s summary:

In the early hours of January 7, 2004, after two days of no sleep and some drug use, Rhonda Theel and respondent Donnie Ray Ventris reached an ill-conceived agreement to confront Ernest Hicks in his home. The couple testified that the aim of the visit was simply to investigate rumors that Hicks abused children, but the couple may have been inspired by the potential for financial gain: Theel had recently learned that Hicks carried large amounts of cash.

The encounter did not end well. One or both of the pair shot and killed Hicks with shots from a .38-caliber revolver, and the companions drove off in Hicks’s truck with approximately $300 of his money and his cell phone. On receiving a tip from two friends of the couple who had helped transport them to Hicks’s home, officers arrested Ventris and Theel and charged them with various crimes, chief among them murder and aggravated robbery. The State dropped the murder charge against Theel in exchange for her guilty plea to the robbery charge and her testimony identifying Ventris as the shooter.

Prior to trial, officers planted an informant in Ventris’s holding cell, instructing him to “keep [his] ear open and listen” for incriminating statements. App. 146. According to the informant, in response to his statement that Ventris appeared to have “something more serious weighing in on his mind,” Ventris divulged that “[h]e’d shot this man in his head and in his chest” and taken “his keys, his wallet, about $350.00, and . . . a vehicle.” Id., at 154, 150.

At trial, Ventris took the stand and blamed the robbery and shooting entirely on Theel. The government sought to call the informant, to testify to Ventris’s prior contradictory statement; Ventris objected. The State conceded that there was “probably a violation” of Ventris’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel but nonetheless argued that the statement was admissible for impeachment purposes because the violation “doesn’t give the Defendant . . . a license to just get on the stand and lie.” Id., at 143. The trial court agreed and allowed the informant’s testimony, but instructed the jury to “consider with caution” all testimony given in exchange for benefits from the State. Id., at 30. The jury ultimately acquitted Ventris of felony murder and misdemeanor theft but returned a guilty verdict on the aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery counts.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that “[o]nce a criminal prosecution has commenced, the defendant’s statements made to an undercover informant surreptitiously acting as an agent for theState are not admissible at trial for any reason, including the impeachment of the defendant’s testimony.”

In his decision this morning, Scalia pointed out that the exclusionary rule is applied differently, depending on the rights that were violated. The Fifth Amendment’s protection from compelled self-incrimination is enforced with an absolute exclusion — the overriding of an individual’s free will and extraction of a confession is so heinous, that the confession cannot be used either in the prosecution’s case-in-chief, nor in rebuttal, nor for impeachment. The exclusionary rule there is used to prevent violations of the right. On the other hand, the exclusionary rule is not automatic in the Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure context, nor is it absolute, but can instead be used to rebut and impeach the defendant’s testimony.

With respect to the Sixth Amendment, when there is a pretrial interrogation of a defendant — after the defendant has been formally charged — the defendant has the right to have a lawyer present. Apart from that, it only guarantees a right to counsel at trial. The reason why there’s a right to counsel at the interrogation stage is because interrogation is a critical stage of the prosecution.

Let’s stop there for a second to point out that this is an odd presumption. It’s odd in that the only interest at stake is the defendant’s interest in beating the rap. We’re not talking about coerced confessions here. The reason for this rule cannot be that we want a witness to the confession, a defense lawyer who can confirm whether it was voluntary or not. Because the attorney can’t testify, and he isn’t likely to be believed in the first place, because he’s interested in protecting his client.

The effect is to stop confessions that otherwise would have been freely made, by requiring counsel whose real purpose is to tell the defendant to shut up. The obvious problem is that, if a lawyer was present, then that would make the police acts even more offensive, violating or infringing on attorney-client confidentiality, which would be even more violative of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel. Frankly, when the Supreme Court carved out this rule in Massiah, Brewer, etc. they were fighting a non-existent Sixth Amendment problem while ignoring the actual underlying Fourth Amendment problem.

But we digress.

Scalia, too, has problems with Massiah, calling it “equivocal on what precisely constituted the violation. It quoted various authorities indicating that the violation occurred at the moment of the postindictment interrogation because such questioning ‘contravenes the basic dictates of fairness in the conduct of criminal causes.’ But the opinion later suggested that the violation occurred only when the improperly obtained evidence was ‘used against [the defendant] at his trial.’”

Nevertheless, Scalia had no problem deciding that “the Massiah right is a right to be free of uncounseled interrogation, and is infringed at the time of the interrogation.”

So far, so good. Everyone now agrees that there was in fact a Sixth Amendment violation here. The issue now is whether the fruits of that violation must be excluded absolutely, as with a Fifth Amendment violation, or only kept out of the case on direct, as with the Fourth.

In this situation, Scalia argued, the purpose of exclusion would not be prevention of the violation, as it is with the Fifth Amendment. Instead, the purpose would be to remedy a violation that has already occurred, as with the Fourth.

When that is the purpose, there is strong precedent that such excluded evidence is allowed for impeachment. The defendant’s interests are outweighed by the need to prevent perjury, and by the need to ensure the integrity of the trial process. Although the government cannot make an affirmative use of evidence unlawfully obtained, that doesn’t mean the defendant can shield himself against contradiction of his untruths.

Therefore, once a defendant has testified contrary to his excluded statement, the excluded statement is admissible on cross or in rebuttal. “Denying the prosecution the use of ‘the traditional truth-testing devices of the adversary process’ is a high price to pay for vindication of the right to counsel at the prior stage.”

If the rule were any different, Scalia added, if the statements were absolutely excluded, there would be no extra deterrent effect. The odds that any given defendant will actually testify at trial are very small. The odds that he would then testify differently — knowing that the statement would be admissible for impeachment — are even smaller. So letting this come in for impeachment is not going to cause any cops to play games, and get excludable statements in the hopes of using them for impeachment later.

Supreme Court Messes Up — Fails to Clarify Misunderstood Miranda

Monday, April 6th, 2009

interrogation.png

We admit it: we like to skip to the Scalia dissent.

Not because we necessarily agree with his philosophy of jurisprudence. But because it’s a good bet to be an entertaining read. Whether he’s dissenting from an expansive activist or a fellow limited-role jurist, he’s good for a bit of snark while mercilessly pointing out flaws and internal inconsistencies in the other fellow’s opinion.

So when we saw that Alito, and not Scalia, wrote the dissent in this morning’s Corley v. United States decision on the exclusion of statements, we sighed a little and took in the majority opinion first.

Well, we learned our lesson. Alito can give good dissent.

At issue is 18 U.S.C. § 3501. The statute was passed by Congress back in the 60s, in an attempt to undo some of the aggressive jurisprudence of the Warren Court. Particularly, Congress was trying to nullify the Court’s perceived expansion of the Exclusionary Rule with respect to statements. Miranda made statements inadmissible if suspects weren’t advised of their rights before custodial interrogation, and McNabb and Mallory excluded confessions during extended detention prior to arraignment. §3501(a) tried to nullify Miranda by saying that, notwithstanding any warnings, if the statement was voluntary, then it was admissible. §3501(c) similarly said that custodial confessions weren’t automatically inadmissible because of delay, if they were voluntary. Congress flatly said that voluntary statements were going to be admissible.

Now, all this shows is that Congress didn’t understand Miranda or the McNabb-Mallory rule. At heart behind both rules is the concept of voluntariness. If someone voluntarily inculpated themselves, then the Court has never had a problem with admitting that statement into evidence. The only thing that the Court has ever had a problem with — no matter who was on the bench — is involuntary statements being used against people.

Seriously, the single policy that explains all of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the exclusion of statement evidence is this: “We won’t allow the government to convict somebody by overriding that person’s free will.”

So if the defendant was forced to incriminate himself out of his own mouth, then we won’t let that in. We won’t let the government beat confessions out of suspects, and this is all of a piece.

By the same token, we have no problem with taking blood or DNA samples without the suspect’s permission, because we’re not forcing him to convict himself. We’re just taking already-existing physical evidence, not forcing the suspect to create evidence to be used against him.

Hence the rule of Miranda and its progeny: If a reasonable person wouldn’t feel free to leave, and he’s being quizzed by the government, then incriminating response is by definition involuntary. The only way the government can cure that is to make sure the suspect knew his rights against self-incrimination, and knowingly waived those rights.

And hence the rule of McNabb-Mallory: The longer you’re being held by the government without being informed of the charges against you, the less likely anything you say will be voluntary. At some point, your statement is going to be by definition involuntary, unless the government has taken some affirmative action to ensure it really was voluntary.

Given this, §3501 is really a dead letter. Oh, there have been those who argue that its effect is what Congress intended, the nullification of the case law (see, e.g., U.S. v. Dickerson, 166 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999)). But all §3501 says is that, if a statement was really voluntary, then it is admissible. And that is precisely what the case law also says.

So we come to today’s case, Corley v. U.S. The decision was 5-4, split right down the (jurisprudentially) liberal/conservative line. Souter wrote for the majority, joined by Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer. Alito fired off the dissent, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

And Souter — whom we like immensely — messed it up. Of all Justices, he was the one we expected to really get it, and lay out the real policy and uphold the majesty and wisdom of the law. Instead, he made a hash of it.

All he had to do is say, “yes, §3501 means what it says. But it does not do what Congress meant. The plain language of the statute does not affect our case law in the slightest.” We are willing to bet money that Scalia would have joined the majority if he had said that. And he might have taken the others with him for a Roberts-pleasing unanimous decision.

But instead, Souter said §3501 meant what it said as to Miranda, but it did not mean what it said as to McNabb-Mallory. His internally-inconsistent, self-contradictory interpretation required 18 pages of justification. At the end, he concluded that Congress didn’t mean to nullify McNabb-Mallory while trying to nullify Miranda, and so a Mirandized confession is still excludable if made during an extensive pre-presentment delay.

Souter’s reasoning was unnecessarily convoluted, and required a patchwork of equally risible arguments to fill in the obvious gaps. In dissent, Alito seems to gleefully dissect each one in turn. You just know he was grinning like a fool while writing (or directing) some of these passages. Oh sure, he tries for a veneer of objectivity with phrases like “the Court cites no authority for a canon of interpretation that favors a ‘negative implication’ of this sort over clear and express statutory language.” But that can’t conceal the snark within. Although Scalia might have had more fun with the point that “although we normally presume that Congress means in a statute what it says there, the Court today concludes that §3501(a) does not mean what it says,” it’s obvious that Alito was enjoying himself too.

Interestingly, the dissent does not disagree with the majority’s result, but only with its analysis. We really do think that if Souter had thought it through, he could have had a unanimous opinion clearing up this misunderstood line of cases for posterity.

That’s okay, we just did it for you.