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April 9, 2010

Close Counts in Horseshoes and Miranda Warnings

In February, the Court announced the latest in a line of cases related to the sufficiency of Miranda warnings. In Florida v. Powell, the Court held that even though the police did not specifically inform the suspect that he had the right to consult with an attorney during questioning, what he was told was sufficient to convey that information.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Court set out what it hoped would be a set of simple, easy to apply set of warnings that the police must give to a suspect before engaging in any custodial interrogation. The Miranda Court hoped that these warnings would help to level the playing field between a suspect and the police in the pressure-filled and coercive environment of a custodial interrogation. The Court also believed that a simple set of warnings would help to extract the Supreme Court and the lower courts from having to sort out the very fact-bound and inherently conflicting evidence that had, up to that time, characterized much of the litigation over the voluntariness of confessions.

Looking back now 44 years after Miranda, Florida v. Powell is another reminder that the Miranda Court’s vision has not been realized. On the contrary, Miranda has created a complex, confusing and inherently inconsistent body of caselaw and it leaves us wondering whether Miranda really solved anything.

The specific rights and warnings that the Court set out in Miranda were: the right to remain silent, the warning that anything the suspect says could be used against the suspect, the right to have an attorney present during questioning, and the right to have an attorney appointed if the suspect could not afford one. In Powell, the Court was asked to rule on the adequacy of the standard warnings used by the Tampa Police Department. The Tampa warnings did not specifically tell the suspect that he or she had the right to have an attorney present during questioning. Rather, the warnings told the suspect that he or she has the right to talk to a lawyer before questioning, and that the suspect has the “right to use any of these rights at any time you want during questioning.” The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ginsberg, found that, while these warnings did not track exactly the requirements of Miranda, the warnings sufficiently informed the suspect that he or she could have an attorney present during questioning.

It is true that the Tampa Police Department’s warnings do not depart drastically from the Miranda requirements, but the question remains: if Miranda set out such bright line guidance, why depart from it at all? Could it be that the police are hoping that by simply throwing in a catch-all phrase at the end of the warning, the suspect will not fully make the connection between the right to consult with counsel before questioning and the right to have counsel present during questioning? When the Court approves of these “close enough” warnings procedures like the one in Powell, is it also signaling that it too does not think much of the protections provided by Miranda? What does seem sure is that a healthy majority of the Court, both liberals and conservatives, will continue to pursue a course of Miranda jurisprudence that departs from the simple guidance that the Miranda Court hoped to achieve.

Victor Hansen

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