Intentional Violations of Miranda: A Strategy for Liability

Article excerpt

Over three decades ago, in Miranda v. Arizona,(1) the United States Supreme Court held that custodial interrogations create a psychologically compelling atmosphere that countermands the Fifth Amendment protection against compelled self-incrimination.(2) Accordingly, the Court developed the now-familiar Miranda warnings as a means of reducing the compulsion attendant in custodial interrogations.

In the years that followed, the Court handed down numerous rulings purported to clarify and refine the Miranda decision.(3) The practical result of these rulings is that there now exists a complex legal maze that investigators must negotiate when attempting to interrogate custodial subjects. Occasionally, investigators fail, either accidentally or intentionally, to negotiate the maze properly.

Accidental failures to negotiate the Miranda maze have resulted in the suppression of evidence in subsequent criminal cases,(4) but generally have not resulted in any successful civil suits against law enforcement officers or agencies.(5) However, civil suits alleging intentional failures may have considerably greater potential for success in the courts.(6)

This article reviews the cases that, by limiting the legal consequences of Miranda violations, may have encouraged some law enforcement officers to develop interrogation strategies that incorporate intentional violations of the Miranda rule. The article also examines the potential civil liability for following such strategies.

Limitations on the Effects of Miranda Violations

The Supreme Court has recognized that Miranda warnings are not constitutionally mandated.(7) Rather, the warnings are a protective measure designed to safeguard the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. Consequently, violations of the Miranda rule do not carry with them the same force and effect as a constitutional violation. Statements obtained in violation of Miranda have a variety of lawful uses.

For example, in Michigan v. Tucker,(8) the Supreme Court held that a Miranda violation that resulted in the identification of a witness did not preclude the government from calling that witness to testify at trial. The witness in question was named in an alibi provided by the defendant during an interrogation session that followed an incomplete advice of rights.(9) When contacted by the police, the witness not only failed to corroborate the defendant's alibi but also provided additional damaging information. The defendant subsequently sought to have the witness' testimony excluded at trial on the grounds that the identity of the witness was discovered as a result of the violation of Miranda. The Supreme Court, however, concluded that although statements taken without benefit of full Miranda warnings generally could not be admitted at trial, some acceptable uses of those statements exist.(10) Identification of witnesses is one such acceptable use.

In Oregon v. Elstad,(11) the Supreme Court similarly held that a second statement obtained from a custodial suspect following one taken, in violation of Miranda is not necessarily a fruit of the poisonous tree and may be used at trial. In Elstad, the defendant made incriminating statements during an interrogation that was later determined to contravene Miranda. The defendant repeated those statements and gave a detailed confession during a later interrogation session conducted in full compliance with Miranda. The defense subsequently argued that because the "cat was let out of the bag" during the initial unlawful interrogation, the statement provided during the later interrogation was tainted by the original illegality and, therefore, inadmissible. In rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court found that the goals of Miranda were satisfied by the suppression of the unwarned statement and that "no further purpose is served by imputing `taint' to subsequent statements"(12) lawfully obtained. …