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Miranda Rights

December 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The Miranda warning is familiar to anyone who’s watched a TV crime show. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.”

Police officers have been required to give that warning before questioning suspects ever since the 1966 Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona.

Today, the Supreme Court heard two cases challenging the scope of the Miranda protections. To walk us through the arguments, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune. Welcome back, Jan.


MARGARET WARNER: What do these two cases, first of all, have in common?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, both cases could narrow the scope of the Miranda ruling and give police more leeway in questioning defendants without advising them of their rights to remain silent.

In both cases that we heard today, police questioned a defendant without either immediately or fully advising them of their Miranda rights and then sought to use evidence they obtained against them at trial.

The defendants in both cases say that police must not or government lawyers must not be able to use that evidence against them; that it would allow police to do an end run around Miranda and make its requirements meaningless, if they can use the evidence against them at trial, why give the warnings in the first place?

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about the first case, the Colorado case.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That involves whether or not physical evidence, such as a gun that has been obtained as a result of the Miranda violation can be introduced at trial against a defendant. On this case, it came about when police arrested a Colorado man on a domestic violence charge. They began to read him his Miranda rights. He cut them off. He said I know my rights. Stop. They started questioning.

He subsequently said he had a gun. It was in the house. The police could go get it. At his trial, the government, on a gun possession charge, the government thought to use the gun against him as evidence. He argued it should not be admitted at trial. A lower court agreed it was inadmissible.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about the arguments today. On what basis did the government say — I know the lower court ruled in favor of the defendant — on what basis did the government say it should be allowed?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The lawyer for the justice department said this was different than what Miranda was designed to get at — that Miranda, the goal of Miranda was to ensure trustworthy evidence, to ensure that defendants aren’t coerced into making false statements, for example, and that’s why police officers have to read them their rights before they talk to them.

The physical evidence is different; a gun is different from a false statement so Miranda needn’t apply here. No harm was done and the evidence should be introduced. Of course a lawyer for the defendant saw it quite differently. She said the gun is just as incriminating as the statement. And in a gun possession case, evidence that the man possessed a gun is incredibly indiscriminating and should be excluded from evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the second case, in fact, from Missouri, did involve a confession. Briefly describe it. It is a complicated case but give us the nub of that one.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The second case involved a Missouri woman involved in an arson that left a teenager dead. The detective, when he went to interview the woman employed what has become a pretty widely used tactic in some jurisdiction across the country. He talked to her informally at first, 30 to 40 minutes at the police station….

MARGARET WARNER: With no warning.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: With no warning. But said I know you’ve lied. You know, you did this. You’ll feel better if you tell the truth; showed her a picture of the teenager’s corpse. Finally she broke down, sobbing, admitted that she had involvement in this arson.

He then took a break, got a tape recorder, came back, read her her Miranda rights and got her to repeat the incriminating statements in the confession referring back to the statements that she’d made earlier. The government used that second statement, her confession against her at trial.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed her conviction and said it could not be used against her because it was in violation of Miranda that the officer — and this was the difference from the first case — the officer in this case had intentionally refused to give her her Miranda warnings.

MARGARET WARNER: The arguments there.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: In that case, the justices seem more troubled, I have to say because of this intentional element is that the officer had declined to give her her Miranda warnings at first, particularly Justice Breyer who surprisingly in the first case seemed sympathetic, a liberal, sides with the more liberal justices.

In the first case, he said, he seemed sympathetic to the police and that the police officers in that case had made a good faith effort to give the Miranda warning but in this case, it was the officer’s intent. And a lawyer for the defendant in this case said that a ruling for police would encourage police officers and law enforcement, the FBI, which does not do this practice now, to do it, that they could just go ahead and have these informal conversations.

What’s the point? Get the confession and then give the Miranda warning. She argued that it would make Miranda requirements just meaningless and I think some of the — certainly the more liberal justices seemed to agree.

MARGARET WARNER: What else? Give us a little more flavor of what the justices said.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Justice Scalia, I think was probably the most sympathetic to police in both cases today.

In the first case he seemed very sympathetic to the reliability of the evidence wasn’t as much of a concern when you’re talking about a gun as opposed to the statement. So he seemed to suggest and some of the other more conservative justices also appeared to agree, that the gun and other physical evidence could be admitted into evidence.

On the second case, Justice Scalia again seemed to suggest and to agree with the lawyer from the state of Missouri that the confession was voluntary, that it had not been coerced, that she had been read her Miranda rights, and she went ahead and said it anyway. So he suggested and the chief justice also seemed sympathetic to that point.

Now Justice Ginsburg made an interesting point, I thought, in the second case, involving the two-tiered question. She said Miranda stands for inform at once. But today’s case, the case with the two-tiered investigation says don’t inform until, until you’ve got the information. Then inform. And that, to Justice Ginsburg and several of the other justices seemed to be a very big difference and could go quite a long way into undermining Miranda and the protections that the court had said were constitutionally required to give a defendant, you know, the right to protect, to ensure that he has the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Janet Crawford Greenburg, thanks.