Police Must Immediately Tell Suspects Their Rights
By Gina Holland, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court told police Monday not to try to
wrest confessions from criminal suspects facing formal charges
without telling them they have a right to see a lawyer.
Justices ruled unanimously that officers who want information from
indicted people must be upfront in telling them of their legal
rights, a victory for a Nebraska man who claimed he was tricked into
talking to officers who came to his house to arrest him on drug
"There was some fuzziness in the law about precisely what police
officers could and could not do," said Washington attorney Seth
Waxman, appointed by the court to represent the drug defendant. "I
don't think it will be difficult at all for responsible officers to
comply with this."
When officers came to his home in Lincoln, Neb., four years ago, John
Fellers sat on his couch and talked freely about getting into drugs
after the breakup of his marriage and business problems. After he was
taken to jail, he was advised of his so-called Miranda rights that
begin with the familiar refrain: "You have the right to remain
That was too late, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the 9-0 court.
She said that under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment, Fellers was
entitled to know he could see an attorney. Had he waived that right,
she wrote, he still could have confessed without a lawyer present.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal
Foundation, said the ruling will not disrupt police interrogations.
Fellers was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison after
being convicted of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine. He
fought the conviction, even serving as his own attorney in appealing
to the Supreme Court.
Justices dodged part of the case that asked if a jailhouse interview
of Fellers was tainted by the improper initial questioning. The
Supreme Court said a lower court should reconsider that issue,
considering the ruling that the first questioning was
"It's a disappointment. They left the interesting point unresolved,"
The American Bar Association was among groups that urged the court to
use Fellers' case to make clear that people facing charges must be
told they have a right to see an attorney.
The Bush administration had argued that the discussion at Fellers'
house was not an interrogation.
O'Connor said, however, "there is no question that the officers in
this case `deliberately elicited' information" from Fellers, who is
now in prison in Montana.
Monday's decision was the first of four rulings expected from the
Supreme Court this year to clarify the court's landmark 1966 Miranda
v. Arizona ruling.
"It leaves a much bigger question than the one it answered. It
answered one that most people thought had already been answered,"
said Susan Klein, a University of Texas law professor.
The case is Fellers v. United States, 02-6320.
The opinion in Fellers v. United States is viewable at:
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