Justices decline to clarify rights of suspects Miranda rule leaves police booking authority unclear

November 18, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Turning aside an appeal from the state of Maryland, the Supreme Court left police yesterday with new uncertainty over their authority to question suspects who are being booked at a station house.

At issue in a crack cocaine case from Prince George's County was how much protection the Supreme Court's Miranda decision in 1966 gives to suspects in the moments after they are arrested.

Under the Miranda ruling, police generally may not question suspects in custody unless the suspects have been told of their right to a lawyer and to remain silent.

But the Supreme Court has not made clear -- and declined to do so yesterday -- how that decision applies not to formal interrogations, but to routine booking procedures at police stations.

In police booking, suspects are asked their names, addresses and other basic identifying information and may be fingerprinted but are not questioned at length about the crime.

The Maryland Court of Appeals offered its clear-cut ruling on questions asked during booking in June, when it ordered a new trial for a Capitol Heights man who had been convicted of dealing in crack cocaine four years ago. The state's highest court ruled that if suspects being booked have not been given their Miranda warnings, police may not ask questions that might cause the suspects to give damaging information about themselves.

"The police may not use the booking process as a pretext for gathering information," the state court declared.

Courts in other states have given police wider discretion, allowing them to ask any questions of a suspect who has not been warned of his rights, unless police specifically intended a question to produce damaging information.

Maryland, in its appeal in the Prince George's case, asked the justices to decide which approach is required by the Miranda decision. The justices chose yesterday to deny review, failing to set a precedent and leaving lower courts and police without new guidance.

In the case, Michael Patron Hughes was told to fill out an arrest report that asked whether he used drugs. He said he did not. Later, at Hughes' trial, prosecutors used his denial to argue that he intended to sell the cocaine they found on him.

The state appeals court overturned Hughes' conviction and 20-year prison sentence, declaring that the question about drug use was likely to incriminate him.

Hughes had been arrested and taken to a Prince George's police station for booking after a police surveillance squad saw him and others engaging in suspicious activity.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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