Supreme Court Considers Voluntariness of Confessions

Developments in Mental Health Law, July-December 1985 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Considers Voluntariness of Confessions


The "voluntariness" of confessions is a question of law requiring independent determination by the federal courts in habeas corpus proceedings, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Fenton, --U.S. --, 54 U.S.L.W. 4022 (Dec. 3, 1985).

Justice O'Connor's opinion, in which the entire Court with the exception of Justice Rehnquist joined, overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, reported at 741 F.2d 1456 (1984). The Third Circuit had ruled that, like competency to stand trial determinations and related controversies, the voluntariness of a confession was a question of fact. As such the federal court must accord the state court's finding on that question a presumption of correctness.

The Voluntariness Rubric

In reversing and remanding to the Third Circuit, Justice O'Connor stressed that the "voluntariness" of a confession was a "convenient shorthand" for the ultimate issue of conformity with due process. In reaching this ultimate question the federal courts might have to first consider such subsidiary questions of fact, as "whether a drug has the properties of a truth serum . . . or whether in fact the police engaged in the intimidation tactics alleged by the defendant." On these subsidiary questions the federal courts, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254(d), must presume the correctness of the state trial court's determination. But the federal courts have a unique responsibility independently to assure that confessions conform with the system of justice mandated by the due process clause.

This special abhorrence of convicting an individual through his coerced confession accounts in part for the Court's treating the "voluntariness" of a confession as a question of law, when, policy considerations aside, it is similar to competency to stand trial determinations, particularly if a "voluntary" confession is analyzed as a continuing, competent waiver of the Miranda right to terminate the interrogation and obtain counsel.

The "voluntariness" inquiry mandated by the Miller decision does not focus on the volitional attributes of the defendant. The particular susceptibility of the defendant to coercion may be one of the many subsidiary factual questions on which the state court determination is entitled to a presumption of correctness. But the ultimate question of whether the defendant was coerced to the extent that admission of the confession is unconstitutional is a matter of law for the federal habeas court independently to answer after examining the "totality of all the surrounding circumstances."

Miranda Waivers Not Considered

The Court, in footnote 3, declined to say whether the validity of a Miranda rights waiver was entitled to a presumption of correctness in a federal habeas proceeding. The Third Circuit had ruled in an earlier case that it was a question of fact entitled to the presumption. In Miller the defendant did not challenge the validity of the Miranda waivers which preceded his confession, but argued that in the subsequent interrogation his "will was overborne."

Because the Third Circuit's majority had indicated that they would have upheld the admission of the confession even on a more searching review, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Third Circuit for reconsideration.

Other Supreme Court Actions

The Court has accepted for review a wide array of cases involving law and psychiatry, notably--Galioto v. Department of Treasury, No. 84-1904 prob. juris, noted 53 U.

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Supreme Court Considers Voluntariness of Confessions
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