White House urges look at `Miranda warnings'

Supreme Court asked to use Md. case to reaffirm ruling on suspects' rights

November 02, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration urged the Supreme Court yesterday to reopen the constitutional debate over "Miranda warnings" and to end the debate by reaffirming that requirement as binding on police.

In a much-awaited legal brief filed last night at the court, with Attorney General Janet Reno adding her signature to it for emphasis, administration lawyers argued: "The Miranda decision should not be overruled."

It added: "Miranda has proved workable in practice and is in many respects beneficial to law enforcement."

The brief represented a high-risk strategy, putting the 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona on the line and testing the court's willingness to keep the ruling intact in the face of Congress' attempt to cast it aside. Miranda also has some critics among the justices.

Under the 1966 decision, one of the most famous criminal law rulings the court has ever issued, police are required to tell any suspect they are holding -- before questioning -- about their rights.

The warnings must include a reminder of the right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer present, and a warning that anything the suspect says can and will be used in court as evidence. The warnings are designed to prevent coerced confessions.

Before last night, the future of the decision was not at issue in a case involving a Maryland man, Charles T. Dickerson, who is awaiting trial on charges of bank robbery. But the government brief mounts a full-scale defense of it, making it the dominant issue in the Dickerson case. The government's legal brief contended that the Miranda warnings have been "absorbed into police practices, judicial procedures, and the public understanding" and should not be abandoned.

The warnings, the brief contended, "have a constitutional foundation," and so they "cannot be superseded merely by legislation," as Congress attempted to do by passing a 1968 federal law that has never been tested directly in the Supreme Court.

Only if the Miranda decision is abandoned by the court, the government said, would Congress have the authority to substitute its views on how police should deal with suspects.

Congress reacted bitterly to the 1966 ruling, and, two years afterward, passed a law expressly designed to overrule Miranda and to substitute for the warnings a provision that a suspect's confession to police could be used so long as it was voluntary -- even if no warnings about rights had been given.

That law has been largely dormant, but it was revived this year by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond in Dickerson's case. Dickerson's confession to federal agents about his role in a series of bank robberies was voluntary, but it was given without Miranda warnings.

If Miranda was binding, the confession could not be used as evidence. If that decision was not a constitutional requirement, however, the 1968 law would control, and Dickerson's confession could be used against him.

The appeals court ruled that Miranda was not based on the Constitution, so Congress had full authority to take away the warnings mandate and substitute the standard of voluntariness.

The Supreme Court said in 1966 that the voluntariness standard would not work to protect the constitutional rights of suspects facing police questioning, and that only warnings about those rights -- or some other protection equally strong -- would suffice.

In yesterday's brief, the Clinton administration told the court that assessing the fate of Miranda would not be "an easy task," especially in light of later court rulings that seemed to cast some doubt on whether the decision was a constitutional decision. The brief suggested that the court should agree to hear Dickerson's appeal, and use the case to clear up the confusion.

Repeatedly, the government's argument returns to the central role that it says Miranda has come to play in the nation's view of its law enforcement system. "Miranda has come to play a unique and important role in the nation's conception of our criminal justice system: it promotes public confidence that the criminal justice system is fair," it said.

The brief also argued that, if Miranda were to be overruled, the court also would have to overturn 11 other major criminal law decisions keyed to that decision.

The administration noted that the court has repeatedly required Miranda warnings in the operations of state and local police, as well as those of federal agents. If Miranda is not a constitutional decision, it said, then the Supreme Court would have had no authority to require state and local police to obey that decision.

The court is expected to announce within a few weeks whether it will review the Miranda dispute in Dickerson's case. If it does, it presumably will pick a private lawyer to defend Congress' 1968 attempt to end the warnings, because the Justice Department, which normally defends federal laws, will not do so this time.

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