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Government files brief seeking to preserve Miranda warnings


November 2, 1999
Web posted at: 10:19 a.m. EDT (1419 GMT)

In this story:

Earl Warren wrote landmark decision

Guidelines for police

Supreme Court could appoint lawyers

Irony for government


From Correspondent Terry Frieden at the Justice Department

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has filed documents with the U.S. Supreme Court urging it to preserve the historic Miranda ruling requiring authorities to tell suspects of their legal rights.

Supreme Court

The department argued against a law passed in Congress two years after the 1966 Miranda decision, which allows into evidence voluntary confessions made without Miranda warnings. The Justice Department says the Constitution prevents the enforcement of that 1968 law. .

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to consider an appeal of a Fourth Circuit Court ruling that would effectively strike down the well-known "Miranda warnings," which protect citizens' fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination.

"At this point in time, 33 years after Miranda was decided and many years after it has been absorbed into police practices, judicial procedures and the public understanding, the Miranda decision should not be overruled," the government said in its written brief.

Earl Warren wrote landmark decision

In the landmark 1966 Miranda vs Arizona ruling, Chief Jusice Earl Warren wrote for a five-member majority that police are required to advise suspects in custody that they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them, that they have the right to have an attorney present, and that if they can't afford an attorney one will be provided.

These Miranda warnings have become most familiar to the vast majority of U.S. citizens in recent decades through television shows and movies. The Justice Department acknowledged the symbolic importance of the Miranda rules in its written arguments.

Guidelines for police

"In our view Miranda has come to play a unique and important role in the nation's conception of our criminal justice system: it promotes public confidence that the criminal justice system is fair," the government brief said.

The document also said Miranda provides clear guidelines for police officers.

The 40-page brief written by the Justice Department's lawyers, under the direction of Solicitor General Seth Waxman, was ultimately signed by Attorney General Janet Reno, who made the final decision on the government's arguments, officials said.

To reach its twice-delayed decision, the Justice Department had to fight its way through a legal thicket in a case known as "Dickerson" which pits a Supreme Court precedent against a law passed by Congress, which the government normally would be expected to defend. Here the well-known precedent and the little known law are in direct conflict.

First the government lawyers concluded the Miranda rulings were based on the Consitution because the rulings had been applied to the states, and because of the requirements of the Fifth Amendment.

Then, the government decided the law in conflict with it, known to lawyers as "3501" [18 U.S.C. Section 3501] cannot be constitutionally applied where it conflicts with the Miranda decision. In this case it conflicts because the law says in part "any criminal prosecution brought by the United States ... shall be admissible in evidence if it voluntarily given."

Supreme Court could appoint lawyers

The Justice Department, by choosing not to defend the 1968 law, leaves the Supreme Court, if it accepts the case, with the unusual task of appointing outside lawyers to defend it.

The leading legal crusader who argues in favor of the statute is University of Utah professor Paul Cassell. The Fourth Circuit Court judges in Richmond, Virginia, supported his position in an 8-5 vote.

Conservative activists often have complained that the Miranda rights allow guilty defendants to be acquitted on "legal technicalities." Most leading liberal lawyers have staunchly defended the Miranda rulings as a protection against potential police abuse.

Many Supreme Court observers expect the Supreme Court to decide, possibly in December, that it will hear the Dickerson case in early 2000.

Irony for government

Charles Dickerson of Takoma Park, Maryland was indicted for armed robbery of an Alexandria, Virginia bank in January, 1977.

In court Dickerson successfully suppressed self-incriminating statements made to FBI agents following his arrest, claiming he was not advised of his Miranda rights until after he made the statements.

Government prosecutors appealed the decision, and the Fourth Circuit reversed the ruling, declaring the 1968 statute supercedes the Supreme Court's Miranda ruling, and thus the Miranda warnings were not required.

That left the government in the awkward position of essentially winning a court victory which upon further reflection, it has now decided it does not want to defend at the Supreme Court.

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