By Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday
rejected a police interrogation tactic designed
to induce suspects to give incriminating
statements after purposely delaying Miranda
The tactic, taught in police training courses,
has been growing in popularity, and the Supreme
Court decision, a murder case from Missouri, was
consequently eagerly awaited by both prosecutors
and defense lawyers.
The 5-to-4 vote against the strategy, in an
opinion by Justice David H. Souter, was
apparently the product of a prolonged struggle
inside the court. This case and another Miranda
case announced Monday, the second by a 5-to-4
vote in favor of the prosecution, were argued
Dec. 9 and were the oldest undecided cases on the
docket. In neither case did the five justices in
the majority fully agree on a single rationale.
Under the tactic the court invalidated in the
Missouri case, the police first question a
suspect while withholding the advice required by
the Miranda decision of the right to remain
silent and to consult a lawyer before answering
questions. In not giving the warnings, the police
know that any incriminating statements elicited
in this phase of the questioning will be
inadmissible in court.
The officers then give the suspect a short break
before resuming the interrogation, this time with
the warnings. Typically, suspects will waive
their Miranda rights and then repeat what they
had said earlier, prompted by the officers'
leading questions and by the sense that it is now
too late to turn back.
The issue for the Supreme Court on Monday was
whether the answers from that second phase of
questioning could be used in court, and the
majority's answer was no. Justice Souter said the
facts of this case "by any objective measure
reveal a police strategy adapted to undermine the
Miranda warnings." He said the police had created
a situation for the defendant, a woman suspected
of murder, "in which it would have been unnatural
to refuse to repeat at the second stage what had
been said before."
The case, Missouri v. Seibert, No. 02-1371, was a
variant of a case the court decided in 1985
called Oregon v. Elstad. In that case, the police
went to a young suspect's house to tell his
mother that they were arresting him on a burglary
charge. Without receiving any Miranda warnings,
the suspect gave an incriminating statement. He
was then taken to the police station, received
the warnings, and gave a full confession. In
deciding that the evidence was admissible, the
court treated the initial failure to give the
warnings as inadvertent rather than strategic,
based on confusion about whether the suspect was
formally in custody at the time.
Justice Souter said Monday that it "disfigures
that case" to regard the Oregon v. Elstad
precedent as dictating the admissibility of the
statements in the Missouri case. He also noted
that four years ago, in Dickerson v. United
States, the court rejected a challenge to the
Miranda decision itself. Now, he said,
"strategists dedicated to draining the substance
out of Miranda cannot accomplish by training
instructions what Dickerson held Congress could
not do by statute."
The defendant in the Missouri case, Patrice
Seibert, was interrogated after a fire in her
family's mobile home killed a young man who was
staying there and caring for her disabled son.
Both before and after receiving Miranda warnings,
Ms. Seibert admitted her role in setting the
fire. The Missouri trial court suppressed the
first admissions but allowed the prosecution to
introduce the statements she made after receiving
the warnings. Ms. Seibert was convicted of
murder. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the
conviction, and the state appealed.
Justice Souter's opinion was joined by Justices
John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and
Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
wrote separately in agreement with the result,
proposing a test under which fewer statements
would be likely to be excluded than under the
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor said the court's decision "devours
Oregon v. Elstad," a precedent she described as
requiring the opposite result. Justice O'Connor
said the subjective intent of the officers should
make no difference, because a suspect could not
know what was in an officer's mind.
Rather, she said, the test should be the
voluntariness of the second statements. If the
statements were voluntary, they should be
admitted, she said, while if involuntary, they
should be kept out of court even if the Miranda
warnings were given. Chief Justice William H.
Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas joined the dissent.
The lineup in the second Miranda case was the
same with the exception of Justice Kennedy, who
voted on the prosecution side. The question in
United States v. Patane, No. 02-1183, was whether
physical evidence, a gun in this case, found as
the result of statements obtained without Miranda
warnings, could be admitted in court. The court's
answer was yes.
Federal firearms agents went to Samuel F.
Patane's home in Colorado Springs to question him
about a report that he had a gun. Before the
agents could finish reading Mr. Patane his
Miranda rights, he interrupted them, saying that
he knew his rights. He then directed them to the
gun in his bedroom.
Interpreting the Oregon v. Elstad precedent, the
federal appeals court in Denver said the gun
could not be introduced as evidence. The Supreme
Court overturned that ruling. Justice Thomas,
writing for himself, the chief justice and
Justice Scalia, said the Miranda rule could not
be violated unless statements were actually
introduced in court.
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Writing separately, Justices Kennedy and O'Connor
said there was no need to reach that sweeping
conclusion about the underlying meaning of
Miranda in order to conclude under the Elstad
precedent that the gun was admissible. Justices
Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented.