01/26/2004

Supreme Court Rules Against Police in Questioning/Miranda Rights Case

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 charges.

"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 silent."

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 unconstitutional.

"It's a disappointment. They left the interesting point unresolved," said Scheidegger.

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:

http://datacenter.ap.org/wdc/scotus/040126fellers.pdf

Associated PressCopyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Back to previous page