Suspects must clearly request lawyer

June 25, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Suspects who want a lawyer on hand when they face police questioning must make that wish absolutely clear or lose that right, and it is not the duty of police to clear up any doubts about it, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday.

In a decision that appears to cut back further on the rights of suspects in police interrogation rooms, the court cleared up a lingering dispute among lower courts on how to deal with a suspect's uncertain request for a lawyer.

Under the Supreme Court's Miranda ruling in 1966, police must warn suspects of their rights before questioning them. Among those rights is the option of having a lawyer there. Under a 1981 ruling on enforcement of that right, the court told police to avoid questioning or stop it any time a suspect asks for a lawyer.

Since 1981, however, police and suspects have been in doubt about what kind of remark about a lawyer was enough to halt the questioning. The court moved to erase that doubt yesterday, saying it is the suspect's obligation to speak "unambiguously" when he or she is invoking the right to a lawyer.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority that police need not stop questioning when the suspect's plea for an attorney is equivocal or doubtful. They can go right on questioning and need not ask the suspect to clarify that plea.

While it would be "good police practice" for the officers who are in doubt to ask whether the suspect actually wants a lawyer, they have no legal duty to do so, the O'Connor opinion made clear. That was the part of the ruling that produced the 5-4 split among the justices.

The ruling upheld the murder conviction of a former sailor who killed another sailor at the Charleston, S.C., Navy base in 1988 in a dispute over a $30 bet on a pool game. After being questioned by Navy investigators for 90 minutes, the sailor, Robert L. Davis, said, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer."

The investigators explored that comment briefly, leading Davis to say he did not want a lawyer. Questioning resumed, and he described the crime. He sought to have his comments barred from the trial, arguing that his ambiguous comment about talking to a lawyer should have ended the questioning.

The court is expected to finish the current term sometime next week, with nine more rulings awaited.

Insanity defense

In another criminal law decision, the court decided 7-2 that when juries in federal criminal cases are weighing an insanity defense, they need not be told that an insanity verdict will mean the individual will go to a mental hospital rather than be freed.

Interpreting the 1984 law that Congress passed after John Hinckley was found not guilty because of insanity for the attempted assassination in 1981 of President Ronald Reagan, the court said that juries are not to be told of the consequences of their verdicts -- even if they are confused about the likely freedom of someone acquitted because of insanity.

That ruling came in the case of a Tupelo, Miss., man whose insanity defense failed in a trial in which he was convicted of a gun-possession crime.

In another criminal case, the court ruled unanimously that an individual may not file a damage lawsuit against police and prosecutors claiming that they violated that person's civil rights in getting a criminal conviction, unless the conviction in that case already has been thrown out in state or federal court.

Emotional injury

The court for the first time ruled that railroad workers who suffer emotional injuries on the job may sue the railroad company for damages, but only when their injury is fear or anxiety that they faced a risk of physical injury from a dangerous condition on the job.

Interpreting a 1908 law giving rail workers or their survivors rights to damages for on-the-job injury or death, the court decided by a 6-3 vote that only limited forms of emotional injury are covered. It barred lawsuits based on claims that a railroad job produced work-related stress.

Other rulings

The court also said that the Constitution requires that courts review jury verdicts awarding punitive damages to determine whether they are excessive, and declared that teaching hospitals may not seek Medicare reimbursement to cover intern and residency training costs that the hospitals' medical schools formerly absorbed.

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