The Supreme Court’s latest criminal law decision is Kansas v. Ventris, available here. The basic holding is that a statement obtained in violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel may be admitted for impeachment purposes, so long as the statement was voluntary.
In brief, the defendant in Ventris was charged with murder and other offenses, and the police had a jailhouse informant ask him about the crimes. The defendant confessed, but because the informant deliberately elicited information, rather than serving as a mere listening post, the defendant’s statements were obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and the state did not introduce them in its case in chief. The defendant took the stand and testified that someone else committed the crimes, at which point, the state was allowed to introduce the defendant’s statements for impeachment. Interestingly, the defendant was actually acquitted of the murder, but was convicted of other charges. Showing what some might see as a certain chutzpah, he appealed the lesser convictions, arguing that the state should not have been able to impeach him with his statements to the informant.
The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, but the United States Supreme Court reversed. The majority concluded that barring the use of such statements for impeachment would not add much deterrent value to the sanction of excluding such statements from the prosecution’s case in chief, and any incremental increase in deterrence was outweighed by the “need to prevent perjury and to assure the integrity of the trial process.”
The Court had previously ruled that statements obtained in violation of Miranda may be used for impeachment. Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222 (1971). And the Court foreshadowed the Ventris holding in Michigan v. Harvey, 494 U.S. 344 (1990), which itself allowed a statement obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment to be used for impeachment — though in that case, Miranda warnings were given after the police wrongly initiated interrogation and the defendant explicitly waived counsel. In light of Harris and Harvey, the Ventris decision is not surprising, but it settles an open question, one that had become more important in light of the Court’s recent expansion of Sixth Amendment rights in Rothgery v. Gillespie County, 554 U.S. __ (2008) (holding that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights attach at his initial appearance before a magistrate rather than at his first appearance before a judge). With the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaching earlier under Rothgery, there will likely be more situations in which violations of that right are alleged, and thus more situations in which courts will need to consider the use of statements obtained in violation of that right. Ventris, in that respect, is timely.