December 6, 1999
Court to Revisit Its Miranda Decision
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court set the stage on Monday for determining the fate of the Miranda police warnings, familiar to generations of Americans who have witnessed countless arrests in movies and on television.
The justices agreed to decide whether a federal law overturned -- or at least dramatically limited -- one of the court's most famous decisions, one that since 1966 has required police to warn criminal suspects of their rights before questioning them.
The law says any confession or incriminating statement is admissible in court "if it is voluntarily given." Getting a Miranda warning is one factor in making that determination, the law says. But it adds that "the presence or absence" of any factor "need not be conclusive on the issue of voluntariness."
To be decided by late June is whether the incriminating statements a Maryland man made to FBI agents should be used as evidence in his bank-robbery trial even though he may not have received a proper Miranda warning.
"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law," were the court's words in the Miranda vs. Arizona decision of 33 years ago.
The court, then far more liberal than today, sought to remedy "inherently coercive" interrogations by also requiring police to tell suspects they are entitled to a lawyer's help while answering questions and to inform them that a lawyer will be appointed to represent them if they cannot afford one.
American law enforcement authorities initially hated the ruling, but many eventually credited it with improving police efficiency. Opposition never disappeared entirely, however, especially over what should happen when police, intentionally or not, fail to give the warnings.
Such failures now routinely result in a valuable piece of evidence -- a confession or some incriminating statement -- being lost to prosecutors.
But ruling in the bank robbery case earlier this year, a federal appeals court said a 1968 law enacted by Congress means failure to issue Miranda warnings no longer requires automatic exclusion of evidence in federal prosecutions.
The justices now must decide whether that 1968 law, known as Section 3501, lawfully can be enforced.
Worried that federal agents' errors might lead to truthful confessions being thrown out of court, Congress sought to overturn the Miranda ruling in 1968 by passing a law that said federal courts do not have to dismiss confessions made without Miranda warnings.
But the law lay largely dormant for nearly 30 years, until a surprising federal appeals court ruling last February.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court, ruling in the case of a Maryland man accused in seven bank robberies in Maryland and Virginia, said Charles Dickerson's incriminating remarks to FBI agents should be admitted as trial evidence against him.
The appeals court, by an 8-5 vote, ruled that Section 3501 means that failing to issue Miranda warnings is just one of several factors courts should consider in deciding whether statements to police were made voluntarily.
Neither Dickerson nor the federal prosecutors who had opposed his appeal focused on the 1968 law. But University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, representing the conservative Washington Legal Foundation as a friend of the court, argued that Section 3501 allowed use of Dickerson's statements regardless of any Miranda violation.
The appeals court agreed.
After Dickerson's lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court, the Clinton administration refused to defend Section 3501.
In a brief Attorney General Janet Reno took the unusual step of signing, government lawyers argued that the federal law cannot be enforced because the Miranda decision "is of constitutional dimension" and "cannot be superseded merely by legislation."
In today's brief order, the justices appointed Cassell to defend the law before them.
The Miranda decision flowed from the Fifth Amendment's guarantee that no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." But the court never explicitly said its decision or the police warnings were required by the Fifth Amendment.
If the Supreme Court agrees with the 4th Circuit court that failure to give the warnings does not necessarily bar use of evidence in federal cases, states presumably would be free to follow Congress' lead and enact their own versions of Section 3501.
The case is Dickerson vs. U.S., 99-5525.