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Supreme Court Reaffirms Miranda Decision

Police still required to provide warning of right against self-incrimination.

By Charles H. Bogino


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Saying that it has become "embedded in our national culture," the U.S. Supreme Court June 26 reaffirmed as the law of the land the decades' old warning that police must give suspects when they are placed under arrest regarding their right not to speak to them without a lawyer present.

The 7-2 decision reaffirmed the court's 1966 holding in Miranda v. Arizona that gave rise to the now nearly universally known phrase that police must tell criminal suspects that nearly always begins, "You have a right to remain silent."

The court declined to overrule the often-criticized Miranda ruling, in which the court interpreted the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution as protecting people from self-incrimination-not just when they are in a courtroom, but when in police custody as well. But that protection, the court said at the time, must be accompanied by a warning that tells people in custody that they have this right under the Constitution.

The Miranda court also laid out four warnings that the police must give suspects for any statements they make to be admissible in court. The warnings came to be known as "Miranda rights."

Was Congress Allowed to Overrule Miranda?

At issue before the court in the more recent case, Dickerson v. United States, was whether a federal law, passed in reaction to the Miranda decision, legislatively overruled the court's ruling in that case, effectively doing away with readings by police of Miranda rights.

The law, 18 U.S.C. ' 3501, says that the admissibility in court of a suspect's statements to police depends on whether they were given voluntarily. The law does not, however, require that police issue any kind of warning instructing suspects of their rights.

In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said that the Miranda decision was an interpretation of a constitutional question, long the widely accepted purview of the Supreme Court alone. As such, the court said, it could not be overruled by an act of Congress, short of a constitutional amendment.

"Congress retains the ultimate authority to modify or set aside any judicially created rules of evidence and procedure that are not required by the Constitution," Rehnquist wrote. "But Congress may not legislatively supercede our decisions interpreting and applying the Constitution."

Alleged Bank Robber Challenged Statements

The case stemmed from the arrest of a Maryland bank robbery suspect who later challenged statements the FBI said he made after he was in custody. The suspect argued that the statements were inadmissible because he was never warned of his rights.

While the trial court agreed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit later ruled that while the defendant had not received Miranda warnings, the federal law in question made the statements admissible. As long as they were determined to be voluntarily given, the appellate court reasoned, the law did not require the self-incrimination warning. Instead, determining whether a statement was admissible would be based upon the federal law and the "totality of the circumstances," a test the Miranda court had earlier rejected.

But the Supreme Court said the 4th Circuit was wrong, that it had misread later Supreme Court rulings that interpreted and qualifiedMiranda, yet did not do away with it.

"No court laying down a general rule can possibly foresee the various circumstances in which counsel will seek to apply it, and the sort of modifications represented by these cases are as much a normal part of constitutional law as the original decision," Rehnquist wrote.

Instead, the court of appeals erred in thinking that the Miranda decision did not set out a constitutional rule, he said.

Scalia Charges 'Judicial Overreaching'

Writing a dissent, in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the majority of "judicial overreaching."

The majority, Scalia wrote, failed to clearly state whether the law at issue violates the Constitution, and, as such, merely said an otherwise constitutional law may be disregarded if it contradicts a decision of the court that announced a "constitutional rule."

"It takes only a small step to bring today's opinion out of the realm of power-judging and into the mainstream of legal reasoning: The Court need only go beyond its carefully couched iterations . . . and come out and say quite clearly: `We affirm today that custodial interrogation that is not preceded by Miranda warnings or their equivalent violates the Constitution of the United States,' " Scalia wrote. "It cannot say that, because a majority of the Court does not believe that. The Court therefore acts in plain violation of the Constitution when it denies effect to this Act of Congress."

But Rehnquist said that even if today's Supreme Court were not to agree with the Miranda decision in its entirety, the effects of that ruling have "become embedded" so deeply within U.S. legal culture that it would take some kind of "special justification" to depart from it.

"We do not think there is such justification for overruling Miranda," he wrote.

Copyright 2000 by USLaw.com.

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