Epic case to decide fate of Miranda

Supreme Court ruling on rights warnings `hangs in the balance'

April 16, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In 1968, Gerald R. Ford, then a Republican congressman, made clear to his colleagues that Congress was spoiling for a fight with the Supreme Court over "Miranda warnings." Now, 32 years later, the court is finally ready to answer the challenge, starting Wednesday at a hearing on a Maryland man's case.

In a quirk of history, it has taken a third of a century for the court to respond to Ford and his colleagues. In a remark that could only have been heard as a taunt, Ford declared: "I refuse to concede that the elected representatives of the American people cannot be the winner in a confrontation with the Supreme Court."

The confrontation that Ford foresaw is a simple one: Congress passed a law that sought to overrule the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona. Now, the court's much-delayed response, in the case of Charles Thomas Dickerson of Suitland, is likely to turn a routine bank-robbery case into one of history's most important criminal law rulings.

At stake in the Dickerson case is the survival of "Miranda warnings" -- that familiar litany of reminders by police officers to suspects about their rights, including the right to say nothing and the right to have a lawyer on hand.

"It is no exaggeration," says George C. Thomas III, a Rutgers University law professor, "to say that Miranda -- the Supreme Court's boldest and most famous criminal procedure case -- for the first time in decades hangs in the balance."

In ruling on Dickerson's appeal, the court will, in effect, be deciding who won the constitutional battle that Congress began waging three decades ago.

Defying the court, Congress enacted a law in 1968 decreeing that warnings about rights were not necessary and that even without them, a suspect's confession could be used against him in federal cases, as long as it was voluntary. The court, by contrast, had said that a confession could not be voluntary if not preceded by the Miranda warnings.

If Dickerson loses, according to many legal observers, including Attorney General Janet Reno and her top aides, the Miranda decision will be all but overruled, in fact, if not formally. That ruling and Congress' challenge to it cannot coexist, in that view.

Those who take Congress' side counter that the court can find a way to preserve both the Miranda warnings and Congress' 1968 effort to reshape the law governing criminal confessions.

It is the court's task now to choose between those views.

The 1968 law is on the books. But so is Miranda, and the warnings are still required. Prosecutors across the country have seldom relied upon the 1968 law to support the use of a confession that violated the Miranda decision.

The outcome of the new case, to be decided by summer, could change all that. A ruling might also change the way police go about questioning suspects.

If the justices conclude that federal agents need not issue the warnings, then state and local police would be excused from doing so, too.

Perhaps no facet of police operations is better known than the Miranda warnings, which have been popularized by movies and television police dramas. Doing without them, in fact, would seem to many -- including many police officers -- to amount to a basic cultural shift.

Dickerson, the Maryland man, has been accused of bank robbery and conspiracy, but the court fight over the Miranda issue in the case has put his trial on hold.

The case will take the court back to June 13, 1966, the day the justices decided Miranda by a 5-4 vote. The court must now determine just what it decided that day: Was Miranda, in other words, a constitutionally binding decision?

The case also takes the court back to June 6, 1968. That was the day Congress moved decisively to strike back at the court after a series of Supreme Court decisions that expanded the rights of criminal suspects. The lawmakers decided to try to undo the Miranda ruling, among others.

Now, the court must decide whether Congress had the power to do that. If Miranda was a constitutional decision, it could not be overruled by a law passed by Congress; only a constitutional amendment could do so. But if Miranda was not a constitutional ruling, then Congress could cast it aside in federal cases. And state and local police would have no duty to obey it.

In Miranda, the court said police interrogations had become so oppressive that they threatened an individual's Fifth Amendment right not to be forced into a confession and Sixth Amendment right to have a lawyer once he becomes a prime suspect. To counter that threat, the court said, a set of warnings about the suspect's rights must be given.

It never said flatly that the warnings in the form it laid out were a constitutional right on their own. But it did say that the warnings -- or something fully equal to them -- were necessary to protect Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

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