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High Court Loosens Rule On Questioning Suspects

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High Court Loosens Rule On Questioning Suspects


High Court Loosens Rule On Questioning Suspects

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Also in Washington, the Supreme Court has clarified the rules for criminal suspects. This involves reading suspects their rights. When police make an arrest, they must inform the suspect of the right to an attorney, and yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a new rule governing the repeated questioning of suspects.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Unidentified Man: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

NINA TOTENBERG: You all know the drill immortalized on TV daily: the Miranda warning to suspects that they don't have to answer questions and have the right to an attorney.

Until now, if a suspect refused to talk without an attorney, police were supposed to leave him alone. Once the suspect was released, it was not clear whether police could make a second attempt at interrogation, and if so, how long they had to wait. Yesterday, the Supreme Court set a bright line of 14 days. After that, police have to re-advise a suspect of his rights, but if this time they can get him to talk without his lawyer, the confession can be admitted in court.

The Supreme Court's decision came in the case of a Maryland man name Michael Shatzer, who was in prison for an unrelated crime when police first tried to talk to him about allegations that he'd sexually abused his three-year-old son. When police advised Shatzer of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer, he refused to talk and asked for an attorney. Police didn't contact him again.

Two-and-a-half years later, with Shatzer still in prison, police reopened the case and tried again, only this time Shatzer answered questions and gave incriminating answers.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled, though, that those incriminating statements could not be used at trial. The state court cited a 1981 Supreme Court ruling that, without exception, requires police to stop all questioning once a defendant has asked for a lawyer.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said unanimously that rule does not last for an eternity. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia conceded that it is unusual for the court to set forth precise time limits governing police action - but, he added, it's not unheard of. And, said Scalia, a 14-day break in custody provides plenty of time for the suspect to get re-acclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel, and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody.

George Washington law professor Stephen Saltzburg is the author of a leading text on criminal law.

STEPHEN SALTZBURG: It's a good rule. Although it's totally arbitrary and it's, you know, it's created out of whole cloth by a majority of the court, it provides very clear guidance to the police. It gives people a chance to be free from police coercion.

TOTENBERG: Stanford law Professor Jeffrey Fisher says the decision illustrates how the court has moved away from worrying about the coercion of suspects. A generation ago, he says, the court would likely have been closely divided on this question.

JEFFREY FISHER: And it just shows how far to the right constitutional jurisprudence has moved, at least in this field.

TOTENBERG: Both criminal law professors agree on one thing. As Saltzburg puts it...

SALTZBURG: The most surprising thing is that Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, because he's constantly criticizing the court for making up rules. And this 14-day rule is a complete judicial creation. It comes out of nowhere.

TOTENBERG: Justice Scalia didn't really dispute that. But he said it was a practical line for the courts to draw.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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