Two Supreme Court Cases Confront Further Erosion of "Right to Remain Silent"

December 9, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in United States v. Patane and Missouri v. Seibert, two cases in which confessions, information and evidence were obtained by police without fully advising suspects of their “”right to remain silent”” as required by the landmark Miranda ruling.

“”The Seibert case highlights the increasingly commonplace practice of questioning suspects ‘outside Miranda,'”” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases. “”Rather than instructing their officers to follow Miranda, too many police departments are training their officers to undermine Miranda. The result is an erosion of perhaps the Court’s best-known criminal justice ruling – and an erosion of faith in the justice system that police are sworn to uphold.””

Questioning ‘outside Miranda,’ Shapiro explained, is a strategic method of interrogation that includes everything from intentionally withholding the Miranda warning, to ignoring requests for counsel, to continuing to question a subject even after he’s invoked his right to remain silent.

In Missouri v Seibert, Patrice Seibert was convicted of second-degree murder for her role in the death of Donald Rector in a fire in the mobile home they shared. Seibert was arrested five days after the fire. Before her arrest, a supervising officer told the officers sent out to question Seibert to advise her of her Miranda rights. But before doing so, an officer interrogated her alone for nearly an hour until she made a statement implicating herself.

The officer then gave her a break and a cup of coffee, and came back 20 minutes later to read Seibert her Miranda rights. He had her sign a waiver, turned on a tape recorder and had her repeat the statements she had made prior to the Miranda warning. The officer said he had been trained to conduct the interrogation this way.

Missouri’s highest court later reversed Seibert’s conviction due to the unconstitutional method the police had used to obtain her statements.

In United States v. Patane, police obtained a confession without having complied with Miranda. Samuel Francis Patane was arrested for harassing and menacing a former girlfriend. He was released on bail and subjected to a restraining order forbidding him to contact the woman. When he did contact her, she informed the police and also reported that Patane possessed an illegal handgun.

The police then proceeded to Patane’s house, where an officer began reading Patane his Miranda rights. Patane said he knew his rights, so the officer didn’t complete the process required by Miranda. The officer then asked about the gun; Patane told him he did have a gun and described its whereabouts and the officer confiscated the weapon. Patane was then booked for violating his restraining order and indicted for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. However, a district court suppressed the gun as evidence because it was an inadmissible result of the Miranda violation – a legal doctrine known as “”fruit of the poisonous tree.””

“”In recent years, the Court has superimposed numerous limitations on the Miranda ruling that undermine the rule’s effectiveness as a protection of the right to remain silent,”” said Susan Herman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and General Counsel to the ACLU.

“”These two cases are perfect examples of the problems the Court created by its treatment of Miranda as a second-class right,”” she added. “”But the Court’s strong reaffirmation of Miranda several years ago in the Dickerson case makes it increasingly inconsistent for the Justices to approve practices like the Miranda violation ‘laundering’ that occurred in the Seibert case.””

Briefs in both United States v. Patane, 02-1183 and Missouri v. Seibert, 02-1371 were filed by the ACLU along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The Seibert brief is online at /cpredirect/18265

The Patane brief is online at /cpredirect/18289

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