WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court strengthened criminal suspects' Miranda rights yesterday, ruling that police may not question alone an individual who has asked for a lawyer even after the lawyer has been consulted.
Once the suspect has claimed the right to a lawyer, the lawyer must be physically on hand any time police seek to talk to that individual, the court said in a 6-2 decision that the dissenters said was a significant expansion of the 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona.
In the original Miranda decision, the court ordered police to follow a ritual that is now commonplace in police work and is repeated often in television cop shows: Suspects held by police are to be warned of their right to a lawyer and of their right to remain silent, and are warned that anything they say can and will be used against them.
The court said then that if a suspect asked for a lawyer, police questioning had to stop. But it was not clear, until yesterday, that the court meant that one request for a lawyer would bind the police continuously thereafter, and that they could then deal with the suspect only through the lawyer.
Conceding that some of its decisions after the Miranda ruling might have been unclear, the court said flatly yesterday:
"We now hold that when counsel is requested, interrogation must cease, and officials may not reinitiate interrogation without counsel present, whether or not the accused has consulted his attorney."
A single contact between the suspect and the lawyer, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "does not remove the suspect from persistent attempts by officials to persuade him to waive his rights, or from the coercive pressures" of police custody.
If the lawyer is not present when police want to resume questioning, they may not do so -- even if they have given the suspect a new round of "Miranda warnings" and the suspect has not repeated the request for a lawyer, the Kennedy opinion made clear.
The ruling was a new indication that a definite majority of the court has embraced the Miranda requirements, despite repeated questioning by conservatives of that limitation on police work.
His opinion yesterday was supported by two other conservative justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Byron R. White, and by the court's three remaining liberals, Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens. The newest justice, David H. Souter, did not take part in the ruling.
The court's two most conservative members, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, complained in a strongly worded dissent that the new ruling was "misguided."
The court, the dissenters said, "should rejoice at an honest confession" to police.
The decision overturned the conviction and death sentence of Robert S. Minnick, an escaped convict from a Mississippi county jail who, along with another fugitive, had been charged with killing two men during the robbery of a mobile home in April 1986.
After being captured in California, Minnick was confronted by FBI agents, who gave him Miranda warnings, leading Minnick to ask for a lawyer. A lawyer was made available, and Minnick consulted him two or three times. Then police, after giving him new Miranda warnings, resumed questioning without his lawyer present.
Minnick then confessed to the murders, and that evidence was used against him at the trial.
The decision overturning the conviction came in the case of Minnick vs. Mississippi (No. 89-6332).