Two Court Rulings Highlight a Delicate Balance on Miranda

Article excerpt

The US Supreme Court yesterday walked carefully through America's most important law designed to protect accused criminals during police interrogation.

Upholding a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, the high court ruled 5-4 that police may not under most circumstances deliberately question a suspect twice - the first time without advising suspects of their right to remain silent - in order to elicit incriminating statements.

In a second case addressing the court's landmark 1966 Miranda decision, the justices ruled that a suspect's rights had not been violated because he had not been read the full "Miranda warning" before admitting that he illegally possessed a gun.

Monday's rulings indicate how difficult it has been for courts to interpret the law here, and observers say this latest episode in the history of Miranda does little to clarify such important issues.

"It shows you how badly they're spilt over Miranda, what it means and how much breadth it could be given," says James Tomkovicz of the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City, who filed amicus brief in one of the cases. "One of the more unfortunate aspects is that these badly split opinions - which were tied to the facts in the case - provide little guidance to law enforcement officers and the courts in future cases."

In the first case - Missouri v. Seibert - Patrice Seibert was convicted of second-degree murder for her role in a mobile home fire that killed a man. Police interviewed Ms. Seibert for an hour before advising of her rights under Miranda. After a coffee break, she was read those rights, and the questioning continued.

Based on her second statement, Seibert was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned her conviction, ruling that the detective had violated the Miranda rule.

By a slim majority Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that techniques designed to extract confessions (or at least elicit incriminating comments from suspects) when such suspects may not be fully aware of their right to remain silent and have an attorney present is improper.

Writing with the majority, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that the double interrogation technique (which is taught at national training sessions for police officers) "undermines the Miranda warning and obscures its meaning. …