WASHINGTON - Returning to one of its most famous and harshly criticized decisions, the Supreme Court took up two cases yesterday that could narrow the scope of its landmark Miranda ruling and give police officers more leeway to question suspects in custody without warning them of their constitutional right to remain silent.
In both cases, government lawyers argued that police officers had not violated a suspect's Miranda rights, even though they had questioned the suspect without reciting the now-familiar warnings. The government lawyers argued that the officers had done no harm and that the real danger stemmed from excluding valuable evidence or a confession at trial.
But defense lawyers countered that a ruling for law enforcement would allow police to do an end-run around the Miranda decision and make its requirements meaningless.
The issue divided the court, with more liberal justices appearing sympathetic to concerns that a ruling for police would provide a "recipe for avoiding Miranda," as Justice David H. Souter put it.
"Miranda has been around for a long time," Souter told a lawyer for the Bush administration. "There's no excuse for police to say they don't understand what Miranda is getting at."
Yesterday's cases come three years after the court rejected challenges to Miranda vs. Arizona. In a 2000 decision by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court ruled that the Constitution requires police officers to give suspects warnings before questioning them in custody, in order to protect their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
If the suspect does not get the Miranda warnings, his statements may not be used as evidence against him at trial, the court said.
The court will take up two additional Miranda-related cases this term. One involves a man who did not receive Miranda warnings or consult a lawyer but was questioned by police after he was indicted for selling drugs; the other involves questioning of a juvenile suspect.
The first case the justices considered yesterday asks whether physical evidence discovered as a result of a Miranda violation can still be used against the defendant at trial. A Denver-based federal appeals court ruled that the evidence must be excluded based on the court's 2000 ruling.
The case came about in 2001, when police were investigating Samuel Patane on a domestic violence and gun possession charge. After officers arrested Patane for violating a restraining order, they began advising him of his Miranda rights. He cut them off and later told them he had a gun in his house.
He was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, but lower courts ruled that the gun could not be introduced as evidence against him.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the evidence stemmed directly from the Miranda violation and therefore was inadmissible.
Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben urged the justices to reverse that decision, noting that seven other federal appeals courts had seen the issue differently. He said that even after the Supreme Court's 2000 decision, such physical evidence was admissible.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested he was sympathetic to the officers in Patane's case but that evidence should be suppressed in cases where officers know they should give the warnings and fail to do so.
That's what happened in the second case the court took up yesterday. A police officer, employing a widely used tactic, questioned a suspect informally and elicited a confession. He then stopped his interview, took a short break, read her the Miranda warnings and got her to repeat the confession on tape.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the officer's deliberate violation of Miranda made the confession inadmissible at trial.
Patrice Seibert was convicted, based on her confession, and was sentenced to life in prison. But the Missouri Supreme Court reversed her conviction, ruling that her confession was inadmissible because the officer intentionally refused to read her Miranda rights at the outset of the interrogation.
Lawyers for Missouri and for the Bush administration urged the justices yesterday to reverse the state court, arguing that she had received her Miranda warnings and confessed anyway.
The first confession was not coerced, they said, and was irrelevant to the second.
But Amy Bartholowok, a lawyer for Siebert, said a ruling for police would make the two-tiered interrogation process "embedded in police practice."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.