Welcome back to another edition of Opening Argument, a reported column where I dig into complicated novel questions of law and unpack disputes that are dividing appeals courts. Today: A look at how lower courts are applying the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on Miranda warnings.
Police officers are supposed to warn during an arrest that you have the right to remain silent.
But what if that warning wasn’t given, and it’s not clear if you were actually in police custody when the questioning started? Do judges in those situations have to look at the costs and benefits of allowing self-incriminating statements made to be used against you in court?
A Fifth Circuit judge thinks they should, and points to a recent US Supreme Court decision as to why. If other judges read the ruling similarly, attorneys say it could open the door for the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to further erode a rule established in the famous 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision protecting the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Here’s what happened: the Supreme Court said in June in Vega v. Tekoh that police officers can’t be sued for failing to give a Miranda warning because it’s a “prophylactic” or preventative rule that’s meant to guard against constitutional violations, and is not itself a constitutional right. After its ruling in Miranda, the Supreme Court said it weighed the costs and benefits in defining the scope of that rule.
But the Supreme Court didn’t necessarily mandate a cost-benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis, said Mark Godsey, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law who also serves as director of the Ohio Innocence Project.
Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones seemed to read the high court’s decision as if it had. She said Vega clarified that Miranda is a prophylactic rule that’s justified only by its preventative purpose, and applies only when its benefits outweigh its costs.
Her assessment came in a July concurring opinion in a case challenging whether Braylon Ray Coulter was in custody when a Texas police officer handcuffed him outside his parents’ house and searched his car during a traffic stop. Questioning lasted 15 minutes, Coulter was handcuffed as a precaution, and the officer’s tone was never accusatory, Jones said in the federal appeals court’s majority ruling which she also authored, noting that the incident “was not tantamount to a station house interrogation as contemplated by Miranda.”
Jones said suppressing Coulter’s statements would have hindered the prosecution of a convicted felon who voluntarily admitted to having a firearm and drugs in his car and “yield no meaningful societal or judicial benefits.”
Ilona Coleman, a public defender with The Bronx Defenders, called that language “horrifying.”
“In her cost-benefit analysis there’s no discussion of the individual and their rights,” Coleman said. “There’s no discussion as to the cost of what failing to suppress means. What that means is the police get to continue to violate the accused’s Fifth Amendment rights.”
One legal scholar, however, thinks Jones may be onto something.
“Miranda, according to the Supreme Court, has always been about cost and benefits, and crafting a rule that operates to protect not only suspects’ interests but also society’s,” said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah College of Law professor and a former federal trial judge in Utah.
There are going to be situations where it doesn’t make sense to apply Miranda’s exclusionary rule and suppress incriminating statements, said Cassell, who argued for the court to overturn Miranda in a case, known as Dickerson v. United States in 2000.
“Sometimes we say ‘Well, we really don’t have any other choice,’ but here Judge Jones has laid out a perfectly valid alternative approach,” he said.
The fear is that judges will never see a societal benefit to letting a criminal suspect go.
Godsey said Jones probably knows the Supreme Court didn’t intend for judges to engage in a cost-benefit analysis whenever there’s a dispute over Miranda, but that she may be testing the waters to see if they’re willing to go that far in the future.
“It’s sort of like setting the next piece of bait out to continue taking away Miranda,” he said.
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