High court agrees to re-examine Miranda

Bush administration seeks to limit ruling on rights

April 22, 2003|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that it would take up the Bush administration's plea to limit the Miranda ruling and allow the use of evidence that is found after police fail to warn a suspect fully of his right to remain silent.

The new case, to be heard in the fall, could affect everyday encounters between police and crime suspects and witnesses.

Since the Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona, police have been told that they must warn suspects and witnesses of their right to remain silent and their right to consult a lawyer.

But the court has not squarely decided what happens if a suspect's Miranda rights are violated.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., police went to question Samuel F. Patane about calling his former girlfriend in violation of a domestic restraining order. Patane cut them off when they began to give him the Miranda warnings, saying he knew what his rights were. They then asked him about a gun he owned, and he said it was on a shelf in his bedroom.

Last year, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said the gun could not be used as evidence against Patane because it was found after a Miranda violation.

But U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson urged the court to reverse that decision. The Miranda rule bars only the use of a suspect's "unwarned statements" in court and not physical evidence, he said.

A second pending case also seeks to clarify the scope of the Miranda rule. Police in Oxnard, Calif., were accused of forcefully questioning a dying man in the hope of obtaining a confession from him, but he survived and sued the police.

At issue in that case is whether the Constitution forbids coercive questioning of an unwilling suspect. The court heard arguments in December in this case, Chavez vs. Martinez, and a ruling is expected soon.

The two cases should clarify the scope of the Miranda decision. Among legal scholars and police experts, there are two quite different views.

One holds broadly that the Miranda decision set a constitutional rule, akin to the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches. If police break into a house without a search warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the evidence that is found there cannot be used against the suspect.

Similarly, if police violate a suspect's rights by questioning him without giving him the Miranda warnings, no evidence that is later found, such as a gun, can be used by prosecutors, according to this broad view. The court in Denver adopted this view.

But the other, narrower approach holds that the Miranda warnings concern only statements to be used in a trial. Under this approach, any evidence found can be used against the suspect, even if police ignored his Miranda rights.

In two opinions in the 1970s, the Supreme Court suggested that evidence found in such situations could be used against the suspect.

But three years ago, the court upheld the Miranda warnings in an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He said the Miranda decision set a constitutional rule that could not be changed by Congress or state officials.

Since then, judges have been split on whether they must throw out evidence if the police violated the suspect's Miranda rights.

The answer has great practical significance, legal experts say.

If police are told that evidence will be thrown out if they violate the Miranda rules, they will be forced to strictly respect a suspect's rights. But if there is no penalty for violations, police will be free to ignore the suspect's right to remain silent.

In that case, Miranda "would be a hollow right," said Deanne Maynard, a Washington lawyer who often represents the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But prosecutors and police say it makes no sense to throw out solid evidence, particularly when suspects volunteer the information.

Olson said it would "impose serious costs on the administration of justice" to require judges to enforce the Miranda rules strictly.

In other action yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether middle-aged employees can sue employers who adopt pay or benefit plans that favor older workers.

The case, to be heard in the fall, is the first claim of "reverse discrimination" in the area of age bias to reach the court.

The outcome could rewrite the rules for pensions and health-care plans. If the court says companies must follow exactly the same rules for all employees, employers could no longer offer special incentives to encourage older workers to retire, business lawyers said.

"This basically calls into question what employers have been doing," said Ann Reesman, a Washington attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

These groups urged the court to reject the idea of "reverse discrimination" claims by younger workers. They argue that the federal law against age bias was intended to protect older workers from discrimination.

"This would turn the law on its head," Reesman said.

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