Missouri V. Seibert: Two-Stepping towards the Apocalypse

Article excerpt

Missouri v. Seibert, 124 S. Ct. 2601 (2004)


In Missouri v. Seibert, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer's use of the "question first" (a.k.a. "two-step") interrogation technique rendered the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona (1) ineffective and that the resulting statement must be held inadmissible at trial. (2) The Court affirmed the Missouri Supreme Court's decision that this practice, which involves withholding the Miranda warnings until a suspect has already given a statement and then prompting the suspect to repeat the unwarned statement, was wrongly used in Patricia Seibert's post-arrest interrogation to defeat the purpose of the Miranda warnings. (3) The Court distinguished its earlier ruling in Oregon v. Elstad which permitted a defendant's confession to be admitted into evidence despite the fact that he had made a prior self-incriminating statement before receiving his Miranda warnings. (4) In Seibert, the Court based its decision not on the traditional analysis of whether the respective statements were voluntary or coerced, but rather on whether the Miranda warning, when given midstream, was truly effective. (5) The plurality ruled that a waiver of Miranda rights could be given voluntarily but that the structure of a two-step interrogation could still render that waiver invalid by confusing the suspect as to the "nature of his rights and the consequences of abandoning them." (6)

The Court did not overrule Elstad, but rather it added a new level of analysis to determine the effectiveness of Miranda warnings given midstream. Although the Court vigorously criticized police who use the "two-step" interrogation technique as an "end-run" around Miranda, it chose not to implement a clear rule barring this technique in all cases. (7)

This note argues that instead of solving the troubling issues which brought this case before the Court, the Seibert opinion added another layer of ungainly analysis to an already abstruse process. The Court left police without a clear rule of conduct and gave lower courts the unenviable task of determining not just whether a suspect's Miranda rights were waived voluntarily but also whether the warnings themselves were effective given the "totality of the confusion" surrounding a custodial interrogation.



Until 1966, the predominant standard for determining whether a defendant's confession could be admitted at trial was the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (8) In the decades before Miranda, the Court rested the question of admissibility of confessions on whether it believed the defendant's "will was overborne" during interrogation. (9) To accomplish this inquiry, the Court examined the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding the defendant's interrogation and confession, taking into account not only the conduct of the interrogators but also the impact on the accused. (10) Despite applying this test on a regular basis, (11) the Court struggled to articulate a clear standard for determining when a suspect's will was overborne. In the years leading up to the Miranda decision, the Court acknowledged that an evolving desire for fairness in police procedure had complicated the Court's efforts to articulate a precise due process test for involuntary confessions. (12) Although the Miranda decision eclipsed due process as the governing standard for police interrogations, the "totality of the circumstances" analysis remains the basis of all inquiries into the voluntariness of a challenged confession. (13)

Throughout the decade preceding Miranda, the Court evinced a strong concern that coercive interrogation techniques produced unreliable and untrustworthy confessions. (14) Furthermore, coercive police tactics offended a community's "sense of fair play and decency." (15) These dual concerns culminated in the Court's Miranda decision. …