The Supreme Court on Miranda: Shatzer and Powell

The United States Supreme Court has decided two Miranda cases in the past two days. The prosecution won both cases.

Tuesday, the Court decided Florida v. Powell. In Powell, the defendant was arrested, apparently for robbery. Before questioning him, the police told him, inter alia, that “[y]ou have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions” and that “[y]ou have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview.” The defendant agreed to talk, admitted to owning a gun the officers had found during the course of the arrest, and was ultimately charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The defendant moved to suppress his statement, citing the language in Miranda requiring that a suspect “be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation.” Specifically, he contended that the police only told him that he could talk to a lawyer before questioning, but failed to advise him that he could have a lawyer present during the interrogation. The trial court didn’t buy the defendant’s argument, and he was convicted at trial. On appeal, the state intermediate appellate court and the Florida Supreme Court concluded otherwise, finding that the warnings were inadequate.

The United States Supreme Court disagreed. (The vote was 7-2, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the Court and Justices Stevens and Breyer dissenting.) It stated that it has never “dictated words” or a “precise formulation” that must be used to administer the Miranda warnings, and it found that the warnings here “reasonably conveyed [the defendant’s] right to have an attorney present, not only at the outset of interrogation, but at all times.” The Court rejected the notion that law enforcement agencies would read its decision as an invitation to make their Miranda warnings ambiguous, doubting that officers would think the benefits of such a course worth the risk of suppression. I tend to agree with that, so I doubt that the effect of Powell will be very far-reaching.

Yesterday, the Court decided Maryland v. Shatzer, a case that is likely more significant. The defendant in Shatzer was in prison for crime X when an officer came to interview him about unrelated crime Y. The officer read him his Miranda rights, and he invoked his right to counsel. Two and a half years passed. A new officer decided to make another run at the interview. The defendant was still in prison. The new officer again read him his Miranda rights, but this time, the defendant waived his rights and made incriminating statements. He did the same at another interview a few days later. He was charged with crime Y, and moved to suppress the incriminating statements, arguing that under Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), because he invoked his right to counsel when the first officer approached him, the second officer was not permitted to initiate contact, and his waiver of his Miranda rights was invalid.

The trial court disagreed, and the defendant was tried and convicted. The state appellate court reversed, holding that ““the passage of time alone is insufficient to [end] the protections afforded by Edwards,” and finding that, because the defendant remained in prison between the two interviews, there was no “break in custody” that might have attenuated the defendant’s rights under Edwards.

The Supreme Court, more-or-less unanimously (opinion by Justice Scalia, with six other Justices concurring, and Justices Thomas and Stevens concurring in the judgment), reversed the state court. The Court began by finding that when there has been a substantial “break in custody,” the reasons behind the Edwards rule lose their force:

When . . . a suspect has been released from his pretrial custody and has returned to his normal life for some time before the later attempted interrogation, there is little reason to think that his change of heart regarding interrogation without counsel has been coerced. He has no longer been isolated. He has likely been able to seek advice from an attorney, family members, and friends. And he knows from his earlier experience that he need only demand counsel to bring the interrogation to a halt; and that investigative custody does not last indefinitely. In these circumstances, it is far fetched to think that a police officer’s asking the suspect whether he would like to waive his Miranda rights [is coercive].

Of course, a break in custody that lasts only a short time might not have these effects. So, for the sake of establishing a bright-line rule, the Court held that a 14-day break in custody is the point at which the police may again attempt to approach a defendant. The defendant then argued that there was no break in custody, in that he remained in prison between the interviews. But the Court rejected this argument too, finding that the defendant’s return to the general prison population ended his time in custody for Miranda purposes:

When they are released back into the general prison population, [inmates] return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine—they regain the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation. Sentenced prisoners, in contrast to the Miranda paradigm, are not isolated with their accusers. They live among other inmates, guards, and workers, and often can receive visitors and communicate with people on the outside by mail or telephone.

Based on the foregoing, the Court found nothing improper about the second officer’s decision to approach the defendant, and determined that the defendant’s statements were not subject to suppression. Because it resolved the case in that way, the Court didn’t reach another argument advanced by the state — that the two-and-a-half year time lapse renders Edwards inapplicable even assuming that there was no break in custody. That issue will come up again, I’m sure.

A useful summary of the two decisions is here, though it may be redundant if you’ve made it this far through this post. Of course, reading the opinions themselves — or at least the syllabi — is the way to go if you can make the time. I may have some additional thoughts after I’ve spent a little more time with the cases myself. If so, I’ll post an update. If you have thoughts or reactions, please post a comment.

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