WASHINGTON -- A third of a century after ordering police to warn suspects about their rights, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to reconsider its Miranda vs. Arizona ruling -- a move that raises the prospect of a momentous shift in the nation's criminal law.
The justices' brief announcement, granting review of a Maryland man's appeal, immediately cast doubt on the future of one of the best-known and most controversial decisions the court has ever made on the rights of suspects.
"Miranda warnings" are routinely given by state and city police and by federal officials. They are a staple of movies and television shows about police.
The court accepted a suggestion by the Clinton administration to reopen the requirement of "Miranda warnings." The administration, though, wants the court to use the new case to strengthen that ruling, not cast it aside.
But it is by no means certain that the court will go along. Even if it does not directly overrule Miranda, the court could cut the decision down so far that it would not apply any longer to state criminal cases. It has been used most often in state, not federal, cases.
"Miranda has come to play a unique and important role in the nation's conception of our criminal justice system," the administration argued in a brief signed by Attorney General Janet Reno in a ges ture to emphasize the importance of the issue. The ruling, the brief added, "promotes public confidence that the criminal justice system is fair."
Many police and federal law enforcement authorities support the idea of the warnings, contending that they result in better police operations and in more reliable confessions. Critics say they result in freeing clearly guilty individuals on the basis of mere technical violations of the warnings.
Since the Miranda ruling in 1966, prosecutors have been barred from using a confession unless police -- before any questioning -- have told suspects about the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer and had reminded them that anything they say could be used against them in court.
That ruling has revolutionized police practices during station house questioning. Until recently, "Miranda warnings" had appeared to be so deeply embedded in criminal law that the requirement was not likely to be overturned.
That changed in February, when a federal appeals court ruled -- in the case of Marylander Charles T. Dickerson, a bank robbery suspect -- that Congress had overruled the Miranda decision just two years after that ruling came out.
In its ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Va., cited a 1968 federal law declaring that the failure of police to give a suspect a warning about rights did not bar the use of any subsequent confession, so long as the suspect had voluntarily admitted committing the crime.
Congress, the appeals court said, substituted voluntariness as the sole issue on the admissions of confessions in federal criminal cases. Congress, expressing bitterness about the Miranda decision, inserted a section designed to reverse it in the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968.
Since then, the Justice Department repeatedly has decided not to use the Act to get jury consideration of confessions obtained without Miranda warnings. That is why the issue has not come up until recently, when the appeals court, on its own, decided to press it.
From the 1966 Miranda case, the Supreme Court has applied the warnings requirement routinely not only in federal cases, but in state courts. It could not impose that requirement in state cases if Miranda were not a constitutional ruling but simply a rule governing the use of evidence in federal courts.
If the court upholds Congress' action in 1968, the voluntariness standard would take the place of Miranda warnings in federal cases. States would be free to follow their own preferences in state cases -- requiring warnings of rights, or shifting, as Congress did, to a voluntariness-only approach.
The Clinton administration believes that the 1968 law is unconstitutional. Since it takes the view that Miranda is based on the Constitution, and is designed to protect the Fifth Amendment right not to be forced to confess to a crime, it contends that Congress had no power to alter that decision, and certainly not to overturn, except with a constitutional amendment.
The court yesterday asked a University of Utah law professor, Paul G. Cassell, to take part in the case to defend Congress' power to pass the 1968 law.
Cassell yesterday noted that, since the original Miranda ruling, the court has said several times that "Miranda rights are not constitutional rights."
Even in the Miranda decision itself, the professor said, the court had invited Congress to find alternatives to the Miranda warnings requirement. The 1968 law was the result, he said.
Cassell, who has become perhaps the nation's leading supporter of Congress' authority to overturn Miranda, said he was excited about being assigned to the case -- his first Supreme Court argument.