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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Goodnight, Miranda

The current controversy about providing Miranda warnings to “terrorist” suspects tickles me. I have been dealing with it for more than forty years. It is one of the most misunderstood rules and has been controversial since it was issued, in 1966.

But the outcry about the possibility of terror suspects having and demanding their rights under the Constitution before providing intelligence that could lead to arrests of other plotters and finding evidence of future crimes is rampant. The amount of misinformation and hysteria is amazing.

This is Yahoo! search screen is a small sample:

"782,136 results for “miranda warning terrorist…:

" - Holder: Miranda Warnings for Terrorists Won't ... Holder: Miranda Warnings for Terrorists Won't Harm Interrogations ... If the suspected terrorist IS AN AMERICAN CITIZEN, miranda and right to an attorney are ..."

" - Reading Miranda Rights to Terrorists Is 'Crazy' and 'Stupid,' Say GOP Congressmen ... Miranda warnings were mandated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said domestic law ... "

"Will terrorists be given Miranda warnings? Saturday, February ... matter of terrorists and Miranda warnings (and by extension the trying of these sub ..."

"Miranda Rights for Terrorists. BY Stephen F. Hayes. June 10, 2009 2:05 PM ... many Americans are familiar with the Miranda warning - so named because of the ..."

"Jo's Cafe " Miranda for Terrorists? Miranda for Terrorists? Tuesday, 27 January 2009, 5:30. As Dear Leader Obama closes Gitmo ... expressed about rights for these terrorists under the Miranda Warning. ..."

"Conservative View Point, Political Blog, Conservative ... Terrorist Miranda Warnings. Posted by Bill Patchett on Saturday, November 14, 2009 12:44: ... If we read these terrorist Miranda warnings we would have obtained ..."

"Obama and Miranda Warnings - The Hill's Pundits Blog ... Obama and Miranda Warnings. By Ron Christie - 06/11/09 09:56 AM ET ... him that terrorist suspects were being read Miranda warnings prior to interrogation. ..."

"DOJ Confirms FBI is Reading Miranda Rights to Detainees in ... the FBI is reading Miranda rights to terrorist suspects in Afghanistan: "There has been ... Miranda warnings. In September 2008, when McCain-Palin pulled ahead of Obama...""

Without hysteria or hyperbole, these are the facts as I know them from forty years of criminal practice:

The Miranda holding was intended to enforce the Fifth Amendment’s command that no person shall be compelled to give evidence against himself.

Courts long ago decided that any admission or confession of guilt by a suspect must be shown to be voluntary rather than coerced. The landmark case for this rule is Bram v. U.S., decided as far back as 1897.

In the first half of the 20th century, American courts grappled with the problem of coerced confessions. Common police tactics throughout the country ranged from the less than subtle “rubber hose” to “the third degree” and all the now familiar psychological techniques that border on torture.

Courts responded with occasional but ineffectual rulings that sought to deter such police misconduct until in 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court finally issued its Miranda decision, which required police to warn suspects in custody that (1) they have a right to remain silent, (2) that anything they say can be used against them, (3) that they have a right to have an attorney present before questioning, (4) that if they asserted the right to remain silent, no further questioning could be done. Failure to comply with the rule meant that any statement obtained in violation would be inadmissable in the suspect’s trial (an expansion of the exclusionary rule that courts had imposed for violations of the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches).

The holding met hysterical opposition as soon as it was issued. Police advocates cried that it would tie their hands, prevent them from “solving” cases, free the guilty. Conservative legal scholars criticized the Warren court’s policy of expanding the exclusionary rule — punishing the society for the “constable’s blunders.”

At the time, more competent and less paranoid law enforcement authorities pointed out that the ruling would be beneficial to police work, demanding that detectives continue to investigate, finding solid evidence rather than lazily relying on unreliable coerced confessions to make their cases.

However, the golden age of the Warren court passed quickly. New “conservative” appointees over the next forty years narrowed the ruling in many ways. Among these changes: narrowing the definition of “custody” and “interrogation”; broadening the permissive form of the advisement. The Supreme Court held that detectives can receive statements even if Miranda is not followed. The prosecutor can’t use the statement in its case, but if the defendant testifies contrary to his statement, it can then be used to impeach him.

Equally important, the Supreme Court has refused to demand a high degree of proof in this area, turning back calls for audio or video taping of the interrogation process to insure its fairness.

Of course, the major defect in the law has always been apparent to anyone within the system. Before Miranda, police were able to coerce confessions and then lie about it in court. After Miranda, they were still able to lie about that and also lie about whether they advised the suspect of rights.

Two important limitations to the Miranda rule are worth mentioning. First, the Supreme Court carved out what it calls “the public safety exception”. In the Quarles case in 1984, the Court held that police could continue to question a suspect without advisement if there was an imminent threat to the public. There, a gun was loose; in other cases it has been explosives, dangerous contraband. The Court did the same in the 4th Amendment (search and seizure) context, creating an warrant exception for “exigent circumstances”.

Beyond all the law, which clearly present few obstacles to questioning of terrorist suspects, is the aspect of human nature that we in the system know all too well. The fact is that criminal suspects in general and people who commit crimes for political motives in particular are more than willing to talk — without counsel or against advice of counsel.

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