Federal Appeals Court Says Police Interrogation Tactics Violated "Miranda" Rights

November 8, 1999 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES — In a ringing affirmation of the decades-old “right to remain silent” during police interrogations, a federal appeals court today ruled that the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Police Departments had unconstitutionally authorized police officers to interrogate suspects even after they invoked their rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, along with Boalt Hall professor Charles Weisselberg, had argued that police officers were not free to ignore a suspect’s assertion of Miranda rights. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of James McNally and James Bey, each of whom repeatedly asked for a lawyer during interrogation. But police disregarded their requests, the ACLU said, continuing to ask questions while falsely assuring the suspects that because they had requested counsel, nothing else they said could be used against them.

ACLU Legal Director Mark Rosenbaum said the court’s decision would help to secure key protections for vulnerable people in the crucial hours following an arrest.

“The court’s decision puts an end to the practices of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica police departments of flaunting at will a suspect’s Miranda rights,” he said. “Now, when a suspect invokes the right to remain silent, the police must be silent, too, no longer free to strong-arm a confession.”

Initially filed in December 1995, the ACLU lawsuit sought to ensure for McNally and Bey their rights, privileges and immunities arising under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The lawsuit challenged the common police practice of continuing to conduct interrogations of suspects even after they have clearly invoked their right to silence or their right to consult with an attorney. As the Ninth Circuit pointed out, officers in the Butts case had sought affirmatively to discourage a suspect’s assertion of Miranda rights, refused to cease questioning and prevented a lawyer from being obtained even when requested.

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at Boalt Hall law school at the University of California, Berkeley, said the court’s decision would have an immediate effect on how suspects are treated in police stations around the state.

“Officers throughout California have been trained that it is permissible to question people in violation of Miranda,” Weisselberg said. “Their argument here was basically, ‘Gee, it wasn’t clear we couldn’t do this. We were just following orders and our training.'”

Although statements obtained in violation of Miranda are inadmissible, the prosecution may use such illegally obtained statements to impeach the defendant if he testifies at trial.

A number of police departments have realized that they have nothing to lose by continuing to question a suspect who invokes his constitutional rights. If they succeed in obtaining incriminating statements, the prosecution can use them to dissuade the defendant from testifying in his own defense or to impeach him if he does.

The case is California Attorneys for Criminal Justice v. Butts, U.S. District Court for the Central District, No. 97-56499.

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