MARGARET WARNER: After 34 years and countless movies and television shows, these four sentences resonate with virtually every American. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to talk with a lawyer before being questioned, and to have the lawyer present during the questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you before questioning begins."
This is called the Miranda Warning, and it dates from a 1966 Supreme Court ruling in a case called Miranda Vs. Arizona. The court said that the constitutional right against self-incrimination meant prosecutors couldn't introduce a confession into evidence unless the defendant had been made aware in advance of his right to remain silent. Thousands of confessions have been ruled inadmissible since then.
But last year, in a case involving an accused bank robber, a federal appeals court ruled the warning wasn't required because the Miranda decision had been overturned by a law passed by Congress in 1968. Today, his case, Dickerson Versus the United States , was argued before the Supreme Court. Here to tell us about the proceedings is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, legal affairs reporter for "The Chicago Tribune."
All right, Jan, tell us a little bit more about this case, the circumstances under which this Mr. Dickerson was arrested and how it ended up at the Supreme Court.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure. Charles Dickerson was indeed for robbing a bank in Virginia. He argued that the police officers hadn't read him his Miranda rights and, therefore, all these incriminating statements that he had made could not be used against him as evidence in trial. There was some dispute about that and the officers said, "yes, we had read those rights but that the trial judge believed Mr. Dickerson and suppressed his incriminating statements.
The government then stepped in and said, "look, there's this 1968 law that says even if officers don't read suspects their Miranda rights, their statements still can be admitted, as long as they are voluntary." Now, since Mr. Dickerson's statements surely were voluntary, they should be admitted. The district court didn't buy it, he refused to reconsider. So the government then was prepared to take it to the next level, to the appeals court.
But it declined to make that argument to the appeals court, so a University of Utah law professor, Paul Cassell, stepped in to make that argument for the government. And the appeals court agreed. It said, "the 1968 law essentially overruled Miranda, and so no longer must officers read these specific warnings to suspects who are in custody. And if they, you know, don't do, that if they fail to read those warnings, that's okay, so long as the suspects... Suspect's incriminating statements were made in a voluntary way."
MARGARET WARNER: So what does the '68 law say about how you know if it's voluntary?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Congress passed this law to overall Miranda and essentially it put the old way of evaluating confessions back into place. Before Miranda, courts would look at confessions and admit them, as long as they were voluntary.
And they'd look at a whole bunch of factors, the age of the suspect, how long he had been interrogated, you know, his mental capacity, those things. So Congress, in passing this 1968 law said, "we want to put this voluntariness standard back in place and we're just going to say one of the factors that judges should consider when they're evaluating confessions is whether or not these Miranda rulings were... warnings were given, but we're not going to require them. It's just going to be one of the factors to throw into the mix."
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So tell us about what happened in court today. What did the lawyers for Mr. Dickerson argue?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Mr. Hundley went first, and he said that the 1968 law just goes back to the old way of doing things, and the Supreme Court specifically rejected that when it handed down the ruling in Miranda Versus Arizona. Miranda, he said should be preserved because it provides clear guidelines for police officers, clear guidelines for judges, and it strongly protects individual rights. It's a good system, he said.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And then the lawyers for the government, now, they were in an awkward position here because they had prosecuted him, about they want Miranda upheld.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, and that's one of the curious things about this case. The Clinton administration... You don't see the Clinton administration arguing for defendants very often, certainly in the Supreme Court. But the Clinton administration maintains that Miranda still should be the law of the land and the solicitor general, Seth Waxman, very strongly argued that the 1968 law was unconstitutional. He said, "yes, Miranda is grounded in the Constitution, surely it is. State courts have to apply Miranda, and you know, a state court couldn't be forced to apply some kind of procedural rule, which Miranda opponents say that's all Miranda is.
MARGARET WARNER: So then for the Miranda opponents, I assume it was Paul Cassell?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's right, Mr. Cassell stood up and said Miranda was just this interim procedural rule, Congress and states could change it. It wasn't grounded or required by the Constitution; it just gave a way for federal courts to analyze and assess whether a confession was to be admitted or not.
MARGARET WARNER: How did the Justices react?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the case split on the bench anyway down pretty predictable lines. The conservatives suggested that they thought...
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning who?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Notably, Justice Antonin Scalia, but also the Chief Justice William Rehnquist suggested they thought the 1968 law had properly overruled Miranda. The liberals strongly suggested that Miranda remain the law of the land, particularly Justice David Souter, who sits right by Scalia on the bench, but again, very far from him ideologically. And in any case that's controversial and you see these sharp splits, all eyes have to turn to the middle, to the moderates, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy often will determine then how a case will be decided. And neither one of them tipped their hand today.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little bit more about what Justice Souter or Justice Breyer said in terms of questioning the lawyers.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it really fell to the most junior member on the court, Justice Breyer, to kind of lay out what was at stake. Miranda, Justice Breyer said, is a hallmark of American justice, that two billion people across the world, you know, what the words in the case say.
And how could Congress essentially overall it by implementing something less protective of a suspect's rights. Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Stevens suggested Congress couldn't do, that and Congress had done that and Congress was wrong to do so. Justice Souter I think was...
They were all emphatic. I was going to say he was had the most emphatic, but they all pretty strongly suggested that Congress had gone too far here because Miranda itself, in the ruling, says "Congress and states can come up with their own ways to protect a suspect's rights, but those new alternatives must be as protective of a suspect's right not to incriminate himself as Miranda is." And to the four more liberal justices, that language in Miranda determined the outcome of the case.
MARGARET WARNER: And you're saying that... Did Justice O'Connor and Justice Kennedy say nothing?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: They asked a few questions, but certainly nothing as explicit as the others. And Justice O'Connor I think, in what most hardened Miranda supporters, did indicate that she wondered if the case would turn on whether or not this law was sufficient, whether or not....
MARGARET WARNER: The '68 law?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. ...Whether or not it was good enough to protect suspects' rights. Obviously, Seth Waxman and lawyer for Mr. Dickerson, Mr. Hundley said this law clearly is not good enough. So that might give her a way to kind of resolve these issues if they can go that narrow way.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jan, well, thanks very much.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thanks.