WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday approved Florida's version of the well-known Miranda rights warning, despite complaints that it wasn't clear a suspect could have a lawyer present during questioning.
The court's 7-2 decision restoring Kevin Dwayne Powell's conviction is the first of several it will make this year clarifying exactly what the long-established Miranda rights require police to do.
Powell was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm after telling police he bought the weapon "off the street" for $150 for his protection. Before his confession, Powell signed a Miranda statement that included the words, "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning. You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview."
The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying police did not explicitly tell him he had a right to a lawyer during his police interrogation.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court's majority, said Powell was given enough information.
"Nothing in the words used indicated that counsel's presence would be restricted after the questioning commenced," Ginsburg said. "Instead, the warning communicated that the right to counsel carried forward to and through the interrogation."
Ginsburg praised a different version of the Miranda warning, one used by the FBI, which says in part, "You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning."
"Different words were used in the advice Powell received, but they communicated the same essential message," she said.
Justice John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer disagreed with the majority's reasoning. Stevens wrote that the Florida warning "did not reasonably convey the right to talk to a lawyer after answering some questions, much less implicitly inform Powell of his right to have a lawyer with him at all times during interrogation."
Miranda rights have been litigated since they first came into being in 1966. The courts require police to tell suspects they have the right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer represent them, even if they can't afford one.
The court has two more Miranda decisions pending, including whether officers can interrogate a suspect who said he understood his rights but didn't invoke them, and whether a request for a lawyer during interrogation can expire after a lengthy period of time.
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The case is Florida v. Powell, 08-1175.