Justices uphold rule on prolonged questioning

April 07, 2009|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -The Supreme Court refused Monday to permit prolonged, secret questioning of crime suspects, ruling that even voluntary confessions may not be used in a federal court if the defendant was held more than six hours before he talked.

Justice David H. Souter pointed to the number of people who have been shown to be innocent through DNA evidence but who nonetheless had confessed to the crime.

Police questioning "isolates and pressures the individual," he said, "and there is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed."

The 5-4 decision upheld a long-standing federal rule that says suspects should go before a magistrate as soon as possible.

It set aside the confession of a Philadelphia-area man who was held and questioned by the FBI for two days before he was brought before a magistrate. Johnnie Corley, the accused, signed a written confession.

In sending the case back to Philadelphia, Souter said this confession cannot be used unless agents can show Corley agreed to speak within six hours of his arrest.

The decision turned on how to interpret a 1968 law in which Congress said confessions can be used in federal court if they were "voluntarily given." Another provision says the defendant's statement can be used "if such confession was made or given by such person within six hours immediately following his arrest."

Souter said this law requires confessions to be excluded if the suspect was not brought before a magistrate and instead was questioned at length.

Without such a rule, "federal agents would be free to question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to," Souter wrote. "No one with any smattering of the history of 20th-century dictatorships needs a lecture on the subject, and we understand the need even within our own system to take care against going too far."

Joining his opinion in Corley v. United States were Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

David McColgin, a federal defender in Philadelphia who represented Corley, said the ruling was significant because it puts a check on prolonged questioning. "Agents can use subtle pressure to get people to make a confession. One way to do it is to keep someone isolated for a long time," he said.

The six-hour rule applies only in federal prosecutions. State and local police must follow the 1966 Miranda ruling which requires police to tell suspects they have a right to consult a lawyer and a right to remain silent. The Constitution requires suspects to be given a "probable cause" hearing within 48 hours of their arrest, the court said in 1991.

Before Monday's ruling, some judges had said the Miranda decision rendered obsolete the older rule against extended questioning.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the majority had misread the law. They said Congress intended to protect voluntary confessions, not to cast doubt on those that emerged from extending questioning.

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