Category Archives: Miranda

Greer v. Miller

483 U. S. 756

June 26, 1987

While on trial for murder with two other defendants, Charles Miller testified that he had not been a part of the murder, but was merely told about it afterward. The prosecutor asked why Miller had never made this claim prior to trial. This question was overruled by the judge, because under Doyle v. Ohio, post-Miranda silence cannot be used against a defendant at trial. After conviction, Miller argued that the prosecutor’s question was a non-harmless Doyle violation that required overturning the trial verdict.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that no Doyle violation had occurred, and that regardless, the prosecutor’s question was harmless error. Powell said that Doyle violations only occurred when questioning silence was allowed, not when it was immediately overruled and never mentioned again. While asking the question was improper, it was only a few seconds in an extensive trial, and the Illinois Supreme Court had concluded that it did not constitute harmful error. Following their lead, Powell held that the prosecutor’s error was harmless.

Stevens said that commenting on postMiranda silence is still a Doyle violation, even if immediately overruled by a judge. He also thought this error was not harmless. But because the case was before the Court on collateral, rather than direct review, Stevens thought the Court should refrain from voiding the conviction. Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, railed at length about how harmful even a brief and overruled question about silence could be to a defendant’s case. He concluded that a Doyle violation had clearly occurred. Strangely, Brennan didn’t even address the harmless error issue (it was the last day of the term – my guess is that he simply ran out of time).

The majority got it right. We shouldn’t be making mountains out of molehills. Voiding a conviction over an overruled five second question is asinine. But what most struck me about the case was how terrible the Stevens concurrence is. Whether a conviction stands or not shouldn’t depend on the arcane direct v. collateral distinction! If a conviction shouldn’t have happened, it shouldn’t stand – period.

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Arizona v. Mauro

481 U. S. 520

May 4, 1987

William Mauro murdered his own son, and was being held in custody at the police station. After being given the Miranda warning, he asked for a lawyer before any further questions. His wife showed up and begged to talk to him. The police allowed them to talk, but a police officer remained in the room, and recorded the conversation on a prominently placed tape recorder. During the conversation, Mauro made incriminating statements. Mauro tried to suppress this evidence, arguing that the police had effectively interrogated him by arranging and monitoring the conversation.

The Court ruled 5-4 that the police had not conducted interrogation. Powell wrote that the police were not intentionally trying to wrangle a confession from Mauro, and had legitimate non-interrogative reasons for monitoring the conversation (like preventing the transfer of contraband). That the police knew that incriminating words might be uttered did not matter, since getting those words was not the primary purpose of facilitating the meeting between the Mauros.

Stevens dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. He emphasized that the standard for interrogation was conduct reasonably likely to elicit incriminating information. Because the police knew the conversation might produce such information, and even decided to record it just for that purpose, the police should be considered to have interrogated Mauro. Stevens also found it significant that the meeting was sprung on the husband, and that he seemed to have not wanted to talk to his wife at all. In sum, that the police had some good motives for arranging the meeting did not negate the interrogatory nature of the event.

It’s not stated outright, but a footnote suggests that William Mauro killed his son David because David had some mental disability. Two years later, Justice Blackmun would win accolades from the media for writing a stirring lament for another mentally disabled child named Joshua. To this day, that opinion is cited as evidence of Blackmun’s (alleged) compassion and big heart. Here, of course, as was par for him and the other liberals, the plight of innocent victims was far less important than trivial prophylactic protection for depraved murderers.

Colorado v. Spring

479 U. S. 564

January 27, 1987

Three criminal procedures cases from Colorado in less than two months? The Colorado Supreme Court must really have been out of it during the mid-1980s. On to the case – John Leroy Spring committed homicide, and a few weeks later, Bureau of ATF officials detained him, ostensibly on the charge of possessing stolen firearms. But after giving Spring the Miranda warning, which he waived, the ATF officials questioned him about the murder, which led to some potentially incriminating statements. Spring argued that these statements should be suppressed, because he had been tricked into making them, since he had not expected to be questioned about the murder.

In a 7-2 ruling, the Court held that Spring’s statements were admissible. Writing for the Court, Powell said that Spring had unquestionably made the voluntary decision to waive his Miranda privilege, and that the police did not coerce responses in any way. Examining the Miranda decision, Powell found no support for the claim that police officers had a duty under that ruling to tell suspects about the topics of questioning at the beginning. Finally, because the officers never lied to Spring, he could not claim that he had been “tricked” into waiving his privilege.

You can probably guess who the two dissenters were. Marshall wrote, and Brennan joined. He argued that knowledge of the topics of questioning was critically important to a suspect’s decision whether or not to waive. He also made the point that pulling a bait and switch in interrogation could be considered inherently coercive for a suspect who has previously waived his rights.

Personally, if I were being interrogated, I would definitely want to know what topics the questioning would cover. That said, Powell’s legal case was better than Marshall’s. Miranda is not a Constitutional command, but a prophylactic protection, and Spring’s circumstances simply weren’t dire enough to justify expanding the extra-constitutional rule further.

Connecticut v. Barrett

479 U. S. 523

January 27, 1987

When questioned by police, William Barrett, after being given the Miranda warning, stated that he would answer questions, but would not make a written statement without a lawyer. He was questioned and given the Miranda warning twice more, and he continued to talk but refuse to sign a statement without a lawyer. At his trial, Barrett testified that he had understood the Miranda warning completely. Supreme Court precedent made clear that questioning must cease when a suspect requests to have a lawyer, and that subsequent statements are inadmissible.

In a 7-2 decision, Rehnquist wrote that Barrett had not in fact requested a lawyer, and that he had knowingly waived his Miranda rights with respect to his oral statements. Based on the facts of the case, there could be no doubt that Barrett’s decision to talk was totally voluntary, and that he did not desire a lawyer for it. That he wanted a lawyer for a written statement was irrelevant, since none was ever solicited by the police. Brennan did not join Rehnquist’s opinion, but concurred in judgment. Brennan was concerned that Barrett may have not adequately understood his Miranda rights, but concluded that his testimony at trial allayed all doubts. On that basis only, he concurred.

Stevens dissented, and was joined by Marshall. He passive-aggressively whined about how the Court shouldn’t have taken the case given that its facts were so unique, and unlikely to be repeated. He also felt that Barrett’s case was little different from a previous one where the Court had held that the right to counsel had been invoked. In this case I have no sympathy for Stevens – the majority clearly had it right. Nothing that Miranda was actually designed to prevent happened here. Fun fact: the police tried to record Barrett’s statement twice, and both times the tape recorder failed. Gotta love 1980 technology!

Colorado v. Connelly

479 U. S. 157

December 10, 1986

One day in 1983, God spoke directly to Francis Connelly, and ordered him to go to Denver and confess the murder he had committed there the previous year. Connelly found a police officer and began spilling the beans. The police officer quickly gave him the Miranda warning, but Connelly went ahead and continued to provide information. Much later, when he was no longer hearing voices from God, Connelly sought to suppress his confession on Fifth Amendment and Miranda grounds. He argued that his confessions were involuntary, having been coerced by God, and thus inadmissible.

The Court, speaking through Chief Justice Rehnquist, addressed three issues. By a 7-2 vote, it held that a confession made without any police coercion, regardless of any spiritual or other outside coercion, does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination. By a 6-3 vote, it held Connelly had voluntarily waived his Miranda rights, and that the absence of police coercion is once again the touchstone of such a determination. Finally, by a 5-4 vote, it held that waiver of Miranda rights could be proved by a preponderance of the evidence standard, rather than by a more stringent standard. The majority felt that the Constitution was designed to curb police misconduct, and that if the police did not coerce confessions in any way, there ought to be minimal barriers to admissibility in court.

Blackmun joined the first two holdings, but felt that the discussion of the standard to prove Miranda waiver was beyond the scope of the Court’s review. Stevens contended that all of Connelly’s statements were involuntary. He felt that involuntary confessions could survive Fifth Amendment scrutiny (so long as no police coercion was involved), but drew the line at involuntary waiver of Miranda privileges, even if police coercion was absent. Because Connelly was not in his right mind he lacked the capacity to waive his Miranda rights, and thus everything he said after being given the warning was inadmissible.

Brennan, joined by Marshall, dissented from all of the Court’s holdings. Brennan argued that Connelly suffered from mental illness, and that such sufferers should be protected from having their statements used against them, regardless of a lack of police coercion. He based this conclusion in part on the dubious reliability of any statement made by someone affected by mental illness. Also, like Stevens he found that Connelly lacked the mental capacity to waive any Miranda rights. Oddly enough, I actually found his interpretation of the Court’s precedent more compelling than Rehnquist’s. That said, I still side with Rehnquist on this one, because Connelly seems more consistent with the text and purpose of the Fifth Amendment and Miranda than the various precedents discussed.

What I find particularly interesting about Brennan’s dissent is his contention that Connelly’s urge to confess was delusional. I’m not sold on that – I’m willing to leave open the possibility that God really did command that Connelly confess. And you better believe that I don’t want to subscribe to a theory of criminal law that would prohibit the admission of a confession commanded by God Himself. In the midst of his dissent, Brennan bemoans the majority’s “refusal to acknowledge free will as a value of constitutional consequence.” As a Calvinist, I must say I am dismayed to hear that Brennan believes my theology is inimical to our Constitution. In any event, I’m glad the Court made the call it did – I’m all in favor of any rule that lets the truth be heard, and lets murderers be brought to justice.