Supreme Court eases rules for questioning suspects
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that investigators may resume questioning a suspect who invoked his Miranda right to a lawyer after the suspect has been out of police custody for 14 days.
The 7-2 decision scales back a 1981 high-court decision intended to protest suspects from repeated police badgering to talk and to safeguard the rights established in the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas did not join the decision establishing the 14-day rule, but they voted with the rest of the court to reinstate the conviction of a Maryland man convicted of child sexual abuse.
Michael Shatzer was in prison on a different sexual-abuse crime in 2003 when a police detective tried to question him about allegations that he had abused his 3-year-old son. Shatzer invoked his right not to talk without a lawyer, and the detective left. Two-and-a-half years later, another detective, who had obtained additional information about the abuse allegations, returned to the prison to question Shatzer.
Shatzer waived his Miranda rights, and after first denying that he ordered his son to perform oral sex on him, incriminated himself, including by saying, "I didn't force him."
A trial judge rejected Shatzer's request that the statements be kept out of trial, and he was convicted of sexual child abuse. A Maryland appeals court reversed, relying on the 1981 Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Arizona, which generally requires all interrogation to stop once a suspect asks for a lawyer. It presumes once the suspect invokes his Miranda right, any future waiver of the right when police return is not likely to be voluntarily.
The Maryland appeals court had said the passage of time could not end the protections of Edwards v. Arizona and the concerns about police badgering.
In reversing the state court, the justices said the 2½-year lapse eliminated the chance that Shatzer would have been coerced to talk. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that once a suspect has been released from an interrogation and returned to his "normal life" — even, in this case, when the suspect was still in prison — there is little reason to believe the choice to talk was coerced.
Scalia said the justices needed to set — for future cases — a minimum time for a break from custody and they had determined that 14 days was sufficient. "That provides plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel, and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody," Scalia said.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had told the justices that allowing new interrogations might give police an incentive "to badger suspects through repetitive catch-and-release tactics."
"When you have a two-week merry-go-round that the police can now run, there has to be a concern that if the guy invokes the right to counsel and the police keep coming back, that right doesn't mean much," Stanford University professor Jeffrey Fisher, a member of the association, said Wednesday.
Thirty-seven states and the U.S. Justice Department sided with Maryland, which had sought to reinstate Shatzer's conviction.
Objecting to the 14-day rule, Justice Stevens said that time might not always be enough to protect a suspect who said he does not want to talk without a lawyer present. He said a suspect could "feel that the police lied to him and that he really does not have a right to a lawyer."
Justice Thomas said the new rule of Maryland v. Shatzer was unnecessary. He found 14 days "arbitrary" and said there was no need for police to wait once custody had ended.