Court upholds Miranda warnings

Justices reaffirm suspects' rights in 7-2 decision

Maryland case at issue

June 27, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court refused yesterday to overrule its famous Miranda decision, put that ruling on a firm constitutional footing and ordered police across the nation to continue warning suspects about their rights.

The 7-2 decision - probably the most important criminal law ruling in decades - was written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a longtime critic of the 1966 decision.

Clearing up doubts about the status of Miranda warnings that have been raised over the past quarter-century by the court, at Rehnquist's urging, the new decision declares that "Miranda is constitutionally based."

That means it is still binding on state and local police and federal agents when they want to question a person in custody. As a result, officers who fail to give the warnings run the risk of having any confession a suspect gives barred as evidence of guilt.

"Miranda," Rehnquist wrote, "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture."

Under the decision, police must advise suspects they are holding of their rights to remain silent, to have a lawyer and to have a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one.

Besides declining to disturb the ruling in Miranda vs. Arizona by its action, the court also ruled that Congress does not have the power to undermine that decision.

The court thus struck down a seldom-applied 1968 law adopted two years after Miranda but never tested before the Supreme Court until now. That law was enacted by a Congress with a majority that had been angered by criminal-law rulings that favored suspects' rights.

In that law, Congress sought to overrule the 1966 decision by replacing Miranda warnings with a requirement that any confession that was clearly voluntary could be used as evidence even if no warnings had been given. In Miranda, the court had ruled that any confession given without warnings could never be considered voluntary.

The new decision came in the case of a Maryland man, Charles Thomas Dickerson of Suitland. He confessed to having played a role in a bank robbery in Alexandria, Va., but he did so apparently without having been given the Miranda warnings.

A federal judge barred that confession from his case. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, relying on the 1968 law, allowed the confession to serve as evidence against Dickerson. It said the confession had been voluntary, even if given without the Miranda warnings.

Federal prosecutors remain free to put Dickerson on trial, using evidence other than the confession, including cash found in his home. They may also ask the appeals court to reconsider its ruling that Dickerson was not given the Miranda warnings so that they could use the confession.

The Supreme Court's decision to give new constitutional vitality to the Miranda decision was denounced yesterday by the National Association of Police Organizations. Its executive director, Robert T. Scully, said his group was "very disappointed."

"Under Miranda, voluntary, reliable confessions are excluded from evidence for `technical' violations, even when there is no suggestion of police wrongdoing, but instead inadvertence or confusion," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the ruling for "forcefully" preserving Miranda rights.

Stephen R. Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director, said his group "has always believed, and the court agreed, that effective law enforcement does not and should not depend on keeping people ignorant of their rights."

When Rehnquist, near the close of a public session yesterday, announced that the court had decided the Miranda case and that he had written the decision, a gasp was heard in the courtroom, as if this persistent critic of Miranda had persuaded the court to scuttle or weaken the warnings.

The chief justice began by reciting the familiar warnings. He said those words "have echoed through police stations and across TV screens."

Then, hushing the audience, Rehnquist said, "Miranda is a constitutional decision and may not be overruled by Congress."

In decision after decision since Miranda was decided, the court had declared that it was not a constitutional ruling.

The Miranda decision, the court had said in a phrase first used by Rehnquist, was a "prophylactic" ruling only - that is, one intended to assure that suspects were not forced into giving confessions, but not one commanded by the Constitution.

In those decisions, the court had allowed some confessions to be used in criminal trials even when the warnings had not been given, though not as direct proof of guilt.

Yesterday, Rehnquist said none of those rulings was being abandoned. But he went on to describe them as refinements of Miranda's core ruling requiring warnings.

"The sort of modifications represented by these cases are as much a normal part of constitutional law as the original decision," he wrote.

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