Some police interrogations without lawyers ruled OK

High court says officers can question suspects on unrelated charges

April 03, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for police to question criminal defendants without an attorney present, ruling that Texas officers acted properly when they interrogated a murder suspect outside the presence of the lawyer representing him in a related burglary case.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that police need the permission of a defendant's lawyer only when asking him about an offense with which he has been charged. To ask him about another offense - even one related to the same criminal conduct - they need no such permission, the court said.

"The Constitution does not negate society's interest in the ability of police to talk to witnesses and suspects, even those who have been charged with other offenses," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in an opinion that was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

But the four dissenting justices warned that the court's decision would significantly weaken the Sixth Amendment's right to a lawyer. They pointed out that a defendant who is charged with one offense - armed robbery, for example - is often suspected of several others as well, such as trespassing and assault.

Yet so long as the defendant has not been charged with the other offenses, the dissenters argued, police will be able to question him about the entire incident without going through his lawyer.

"What Sixth Amendment sense - what common sense - does such a rule make?" asked Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a dissent joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "The majority's approach is inconsistent with any common understanding of the scope of counsel's representation."

The court's ruling stemmed from the conviction of Raymond Levi Cobb for the murder of Margaret Owings and her 16-month- old daughter, Kori Rae. The two were reported missing by Owings' husband after the family's home had been burglarized in December 1993.

Cobb, who lived across the street from the Owingses, initially denied any involvement in the crime. He later confessed to the burglary, was arrested by police and given an attorney. But he continued to maintain that he knew nothing about the disappearances.

A year later, while Cobb was out on bail, his father reported to police that Cobb had confessed to the murder. Police then questioned Cobb without his attorney present, and he admitted that he had stabbed Owings during the burglary and buried her and the baby in the woods behind their house.

During his trial, Cobb argued that his confession should not be admitted as evidence because it was taken outside the presence of his attorney. The trial court rejected that argument, and a jury convicted Cobb of murder and sentenced him to death. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that police were required to contact Cobb's attorney in the burglary case before questioning him about the murders.

The Texas court noted that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is "offense specific" - meaning that it does not prevent police from questioning defendants about entirely unrelated crimes. But it concluded that this right extends to offenses that are "very closely related factually to the offense charged."

The Supreme Court said yesterday that this conclusion was wrong. In his opinion for the court, Rehnquist argued that such an approach would deter police from questioning some defendants because they would not know whether two offenses were "factually interwoven."

The chief justice also noted that defendants in Cobb's situation must still be informed of their right to speak to counsel and to remain silent. Cobb was given Miranda warnings.

But Justice Breyer noted that Miranda warnings are required only when a suspect has been detained or arrested; before then, police need not give any warning.

Also yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether states can lock up sexual predators on the basis of evidence that they are likely to commit additional crimes if not given treatment.

The case involves a Kansas man, Michael Crane, who was twice convicted of sexual offenses and served his time in prison. Prosecutors then sought to place Crane in a civil treatment center under a Supreme Court ruling that allows violent sexual offenders to be locked up even after they have served their criminal sentences.

At a state hearing, prosecutors presented psychiatric evidence that Crane suffers from a personality disorder and is likely to commit additional offenses if not treated. But a Kansas court said this was not enough. It ruled that the state could lock up Crane for treatment only if it proved that he could not control his criminal behavior.

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