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Supreme Court reaffirms that police must read Miranda rights to criminal suspects
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In one of the most important criminal law rulings in 34 years, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed a 1966 decision that ordered the police to inform criminal suspects of their Miranda rights during the arrest.
In a 7-2 vote decision, the nation's highest court refused to strike down the Miranda decision and replace it with a 1968 federal law that allowed suspects' voluntary confessions to be admitted in court even if they had not been apprised of their Miranda rights.
"We hold that Miranda, being a constitutional decision of this Court, may not be ... overruled by an Act of Congress, and we decline to overrule Miranda ourselves," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority. "We therefore hold that Miranda and its progeny in this Court govern the admissibility of statements made during custodial interrogation in both state and federal courts."
Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer agreed with Rehnquist.
The case that challenged Miranda was Dickerson v. U.S., which involved Charles Dickerson, a Virginia bank robbery suspect who was not read his rights before he made his voluntary confession.
The reading of the Miranda rights is well known to anyone who has been arrested or who watches television cop shows or movies.
While making the arrest, police officers say, "You have the right to remain silent...." The Supreme Court made the reading of the rights mandatory in its decision in the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona case. Defendants are also advised of their right to an attorney and that any statement they make may be used as evidence against them.
Writing the dissenting opinion on behalf of himself and Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia blasted the majority for "judicial overreaching into the very Cheops' pyramid ... of judicial arrogance" in trying to justify the stance that Miranda is constitutional.
"I believe we cannot allow to remain on the books even a celebrated decision ... that has come to stand for the proposition that the Supreme Court has power to impose extraconstitutional constraints upon Congress and the States," he wrote. "This is not the system that was established by the Framers (of the Constitution), or that would be established by any sane supporter of government by the people."
In the Miranda decision, the court ruled Ernesto Miranda's confession could not be used because he was not made aware of his rights when charged with kidnap and rape.
Rehnquist wrote Monday that the justices who decided Miranda noted that "the advent of modern custodial police interrogation brought with it an increased concern about confessions obtained by coercion."
The 1966 court felt, according to Rehnquist, interrogation exacts a "heavy toll on individual liberty and trades on the weakness of individuals."
"Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," Rehnquist wrote.
Monday's ruling is a victory for the Clinton administration and civil liberties groups that say without Miranda protections, police may coerce confessions and deprive suspects the rights against self-incrimination.
"The ACLU has always believed, and the court today agreed, that effective law enforcement does not and should not depend on keeping people ignorant of their rights," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the matter.
"We're disappointed with the ruling. It's a defeat for common sense and law enforcement," said Robert Pambianco, chief policy counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative group which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting replacing the Miranda decision with the federal law.
He said the court was wrong in essentially saying that any confession given before the Miranda warnings should be automatically excluded. The law was broader in scope because it allowed judges to take other factors into consideration while deciding whether a suspect's confession should be legally admissible, he added.
"The test should be broader than whether this little card was read," he said, referring to printed Miranda instructions many officers carry with them on the job.
The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
The question in Dickerson v. U.S. case was this: If a police officer forgets to recite Miranda or a suspect talks to the police "voluntarily" before being advised of his rights, may the confession be admitted in court?
At issue was Section 3501 of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, which says the failure to read the rights is one of several factors in deciding whether the statement was made voluntarily. The statute, passed just two years after Miranda, can be construed as having been enacted to overrule Miranda.
The U.S. government has never sought to enforce Section 3501, holding the Miranda rights to be paramount. And the constitutional validity of Section 3501 has never been answered by the Supreme Court, according to a case analysis for the American Bar Association by Alan Raphael, who teaches at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Indeed, a landmark 1996 Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that police must advise suspects of their right to remain silent in a decision that linked Miranda rights to the Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
But last year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled that what Charles Dickerson told the police -- before they read him his rights -- could be used in his 1997 trial in Virginia on bank robbery charges. The appeals court cited the little-used Section 3501.
One reason the 4th Circuit's decision was surprising was because neither party in the Dickerson case -- the defendant nor the Justice Department -- focused on the 1968 law. The issue was raised in a friend-of-the-court brief by the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. Law experts say courts normally will base their rulings on what both sides argue in court and mention in court filings.
Some have said the ruling by the 4th Circuit, which hears appeals from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, proves that the court is intent on reshaping constitutional law to its own conservative bent.
The state criminal case over whether Dickerson was part of a minor bank robbery on January 24, 1997, has remained unresolved as the questions surrounding his confession to the police were resolved by the Supreme Court.
The robbery of a NationsBank in Alexandria, Virginia, -- now Bank of America -- netted $876. Based on eyewitness accounts, police determined that the car was an Oldsmobile Ciera registered to Dickerson.
At first, Dickerson told FBI agents he was simply in the vicinity of the bank at the time of the robbery. He made a second statement that a relative named "Jimmy" -- James Rochester -- may have robbed the bank while hitching a ride with him.
Whether he was read his rights before the second statement was the point of contention that led to the court battle over the constitutional question.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court allowed suspects who are pressured to keep talking after invoking their right to remain silent to sue the interrogating police officers.
The court let stand an appeals court ruling, rejecting without comment an appeal filed by California police detectives who sought immunity.
Reuters contributed to this report.
How Miranda Really Works
U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion on U.S. v. Charles T. Dickerson
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