Monday, June 28, 2004

US Supreme Court Missouri v. Seibert 02-1371

Decided June 28, 2004.

   Seibert's handicapped 12 year old son died.  Because he had bedsores, she was afraid that she would be charged with child neglect.  To avoid criminal charges, she and her two other sons (and some of their friends) conspired to dispose of the body by burning their trailer down.  In order to avoid the appearance that the now-deceased handicapped kid had been unattended at the time of the fire, they decided to burn a mentally ill kid (this one alive) with him.

   Seems legit, right?

   So they did, and the mentally ill kid (who had been living with these fine people) burned to death.  And the police figured it out.  In order to secure a confession, the police employed a question-first interrogation tactic.  Seibert was awakened in the early morning at the hospital where one of her living kids was being treated for burns, arrested, taken to the station, and interrogated at great length until she eventually confessed.  This sounds like it was a pretty intense interrogation, too... the detective kept squeezing her arm and repeating "He was meant to die in his sleep."  After half an hour of that, Seibert did confess.  She was then given a 20 minute break from interrogation.  Afterwards, the same detective resumed the interrogation.  This time he recorded it, opened with the Miranda warnings, and then once she had waived them he calmly led her through her earlier confession.  All very camera-friendly and nice, but with repeated references to her earlier statements (he began with "We've been talking about this for a while...").

   Unsurprisingly, Seibert confessed again.  At the trial, she sought to suppress all of her statements.  The trial court suppressed the pre-Miranda statements, but admitted the post-Miranda statements.  She was convicted of murder, and appealed.

   The US Supreme Court explained that the entire purpose of Miranda was to protect people's right against self-incrimination from the coercive pressures inherent in custodial interrogation.  Previous to this, the totality-of-the-circumstances test was used to gauge the voluntariness of statements.  The problem is that it's tricky for the court to really explore the circumstances of a stationhouse interrogation.  Miranda made custodial interrogation easier... if a suspect was not warned of his rights, any statements were going to be suppressed.  But if a suspect waived his rights, his statements were virtually certain to be admitted as voluntary.  Not foolproof, but pretty good.

   The courts have never asked for any particular phrasing of Miranda warnings, though.  The test is just whether or not the warnings sufficiently inform a suspect of the relevant rights.  But just like the courts have never asked for a particular rote phrase, they also don't afford any magic power to the warnings.  The simple recitation of the words "you have the right..." doesn't render a warning valid if for some other reason it doesn't suffice.  Such as where the manner in which the warnings are given is somehow calculated to circumvent a suspect's rights.  Such as in cases where a suspect is coercively interrogated until she confesses, and then some warnings are glossed over and she is casually lead through the same confession.

   Some lower courts described this sort of thing as "an end run around Miranda," and the Supreme Court agreed with them.  Since the second set of incriminating statements were the direct result of the unwarned statements, and since the whole interrogation was essentially the same event with Miranda in the middle (as opposed to two distinct interrogations), the Court held that all of the statements were inadmissible.

Monday, June 21, 2004

US Supreme Court Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, Humboldt County, et al.

Decision here.

   A deputy sheriff in Nevada responded to a call of an assault, supposedly taking place in a red and silver pickup truck on a particular road.  When he arrived, the deputy found a truck matching the description.  There was a woman sitting in the van and a drunk man standing outside of it.  The deputy requested identification, which the drunk (Hiibel) refused to provide.  They went back and forth for a while, with the deputy asking for ID eleven times, and Hiibel refusing each time and eventually putting his hands behind his back and telling the deputy to arrest him (eleven times!! For real?).

   Nevada has a statute which authorizes the police to "detain any person whom the officer encounters under circumstances which reasonably indicate that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime."  The same statute authorizes the police to demand that the person stopped identify themselves, and makes it a crime for the person to refuse to identify themselves.  (Colorado also has a statute like that, but it's worded strangely... it authorizes us to stop suspicious people and demand identification, but it doesn't criminalize refusal to comply with a demand for ID.  Our statute also authorizes searches for weapons, a la Terry).  The deputy arrested Hiibel, and charged him with obstruction for refusing to identify himself as required by law (this also wouldn't fly in Colorado, since our obstruction statute includes an element of physical interference).

   Hiibel was convicted, and appealed his conviction.  He argued that the statute requiring him to identify himself violated his 4th and 5th Amendment rights.

   Regarding his 4th Amendment rights, the Supreme Court held that the stop was reasonable, and that the statute authorizing the stop and the demand for identification was also reasonable because it properly balanced a legitimate government interest (identifying people who are lawfully detained) against Hiibel's 4th Amendment rights.  Regarding his 5th Amendment rights, the court ruled that although it's possible that there are circumstances where providing one's name would be testimonial speech (and therefore possibly privileged), those circumstances would be unusual and this was not such a case.  So Hiibel's 5th Amendment rights were not violated.  The court left for another day the decision of whether or not someone could be compelled to identify themselves when doing so would somehow incriminate them.

   Hiibel's conviction was affirmed.