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May 17, 2011

Supreme Court Rules with Police Again Causing Another Blow to Constitutional Rights

The United States Supreme Court once again sided with police as the increasingly conservative Supreme Court continues to weaken civil liberties. The case of Hollis King, a man arrested for drug possession in Kentucky, was brought before the US Supreme Court this week. King was convicted on drug possession charges but the Kentucky Appeals Court threw out the conviction based on improper evidence. The United States Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom, re-instated the conviction and determined there was nothing improper about the evidence or how it was discovered.

The Kentucky police were in an apartment building searching for a different man. While in the apartment building, they thought that they smelled pot coming from Mr. King's apartment and knocked on the door. Even though they did not have a warrant, the police burst into Mr. King's apartment because they thought they heard noises suggesting that the defendant was trying to get rid of evidence! What on Earth such noises could be is beyond me. Is it flushing a toilet? Is it the opening or closing of a garbage lid? Apparently you should be sure that no one uses the bathroom when a police officer might be in your apartment building! Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the only Justice to dissent) correctly points out that this ruling gives police free reign to enter any residence without a warrant, if they allege that the defendants were making suspicious noises.

Justice Alito, in his opinion stated that "Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame." In other words, if Mr. King opened the door and told the police that they could not come in without a warrant, then the police would have no grounds to enter without said warrant. But if Mr. King fails to open his door and makes "suspicious noises" then it is OK for the police to kick down his door. Sound logic. Our Constitution is obviously in strong hands.

June 3, 2010

Why Don't They Just Overturn Miranda Already?

I've written in the past, here, and here, about how Miranda has been continually weakened over the past several decades until now it is merely a shell known best for its TV dramatization than for any actual legal protection. This week the Supreme Court might have shot it and left it for dead.

The case, Berghuis v. Thompkins, rises from Michigan. The Supreme Court ruled that a defendant has to actively invoke his right to remain silent. The defendant, Van Chester Thompkins, was read his rights and admits to understanding them. Thompkins remained silent while Michigan police interrogated him for Three Hours! Finally, one of the police asked, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" to which Mr. Thompkins said, "yes." This one word statement after three hours of interrogation was used against Thompkins and upheld by the Supreme Court. (I will save my dismay about using God to create guilt during an interrogation for another blog post!)

The Court believes that a suspect can not merely remain silent (even if for three hours) in order to gain the protections of Miranda, he must actually say to the police, I am invoking my right to remain silent. The Supreme Court is now saying that any person brought in for questioning may be interrogated for hours unless he or she verbalizes their request for an attorney and their desire to remain silent. In other words, you have the right to remain silent but we are going to harass you until you finally say something and it will be used against you.

In the past, the police had to prove that a defendant waived his Miranda rights in order to admit a statement. This ruling gives them power to harass and interrogate endlessly without any question as to whether a defendant has actually waived his rights.

Honestly, there is very little protection left to Miranda. In fact, more defendants are probably confused by the law than are protected by it. This is a disturbing opinion by an increasingly conservative bench. Interestingly, Justice Sotomayor gave a vehement dissent while writing for the minority (in a 5-4 decision).

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December 12, 2009

The Weakening of Miranda

In my earlier post, discussing the current challenge to Miranda, I mentioned that the original intent and strength of Miranda v. Arizona has since been deteriorated by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. This post gives a chronology of what I believe to be the weakening of Miranda protections through the years.

An early blow to Miranda occurred in Harris v. New York, in which a 5-4 Court ruled that statements secured in violation of Miranda could still be used to impeach a defendant if he or she took the stand in their defense.

The value of Miranda was truly reduced when the Court began to interpret the terms "custody" and "interrogation." Since Miranda protections only apply if the suspect was interrogated in police custody, opponents of the law sought to re-define both interrogation and custody. In Oregon v. Mathiason, a suspect not read his Miranda rights confessed to a burglary after the police asked him to come to the station for questioning. The Court upheld the conviction on the grounds that the suspect was asked to come to the station and was not formally arrested before questioning and, therefore, should have felt free to leave at any time.

Similarly, the USSC took a narrow view of interrogation in a case that arose from our own state of Rhode Island. In Rhode Island v. Innis, the suspect was in the car with police and had asserted his Miranda rights. The suspect overheard the police talking about the missing gun and expressing fear that some children might find the gun and injure themselves. The suspect then told the police where to find the gun, thereby incriminating himself. The Court held that this was neither a ploy to coerce a confession, nor qualified as an "interrogation," and as a result the statement was admissible. Still later, the Court ruled in New York v. Quarles, that Miranda would not apply in instances where the public safety was at risk.

I began discussing Miranda because the USSC is preparing to decide the Powell case in Florida which concerns the proper wording and understanding of Miranda. This is not the first time such a case was heard. In 1989, Duckworth v. Eagan was decided. In this case, the police simply told the suspect that a lawyer would be appointed "if and when you go to court." The suspect's conviction was upheld when the Court held that it was not necessary for Miranda warnings to be read exactly as written in the Miranda decision, thereby opening the door for countless interpretation battles.

While the constitutional protections of Miranda remain, it is clearly not the protective force it was in 1966. Through numerous exceptions and limitations, as outlined above, the USSC has limited the force and scope of the 1966 ruling. It will be interesting to see how this most recent case will affect the future of Miranda warnings.

December 8, 2009

The United States Supreme Court is Set to Take on Miranda Again

The Landmark 1966 decision, Miranda v. Arizona, ensured that suspects were aware of their now famously worded constitutional rights. Cops could no longer use coercive tactics or rely on the ignorance of a suspect in attempting to secure a confession. In the last several decades, however, the Miranda ruling has been chipped away so that it carries little of the weight it once carried.

mrianda.jpgMonday, the United States Supreme Court heard another case regarding Miranda which stems from Florida. The case involves Kevin Dwayne Powell who was convicted of possession of an illegal firearm. Before his confession, Powell signed a Miranda statement that included the statements "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning. You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview."

At question is whether it was made clear to Powell that he had the right to an attorney during the interview. The statement above says that Powell had the right to an attorney before answering our questions which suggests that Powell had no choice but to talk to police.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the decision on the basis that Powell's rights were not made clear. Yesterday, the appeal was heard before the USSC. Justice Breyer appeared to side with the Florida Supreme Court in asking, "Where does it say in this warning, you have the right to have the lawyer with you during the interrogation?" Justice Breyer also pointed out that this was not a minor topic in Miranda but rather was discussed over eight paragraphs.

To the shock of no one, Justice Scalia disagreed. In his continued effort to abolish the criminal justice system, Justice Scalia stated that it was fantastical to believe that Powell would not have confessed if only he knew that he had the right to an attorney during questioning.

I'm consistently shocked by how often Miranda challenges come up. Miranda laws have been around longer than most of today's cops have been on the beat, so it startles me that cops fail to properly give the warnings.

I mentioned above that the past several decades have chipped away at the efficacy of Miranda... please come back to see Part II of this post as I discuss my thoughts on the state of Miranda v. Arizona.

April 7, 2009

Continuing Fallout with Medtronic Sprint Fidelis Cables

The New York Times ran an interesting article today pointing out that the decision to remove the troublesome Medtronic Sprint Fidelis device from the market does nothing to assist the tens of thousands who have already had the device installed.  Such people face the difficult choice of an additional dangerous heart surgery, or to continue to live with a potentially fatal device installed in their heart.  The Times reports that  four people have already died during the extraction process.

Yet despite the associated deaths and the high fail rate on these devices, Medtronic has been largely shielded from lawsuits thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Reigel v. Medtronic.  The Supreme Court barred common-law claims challenging the safety or effectiveness of a medical device marketed in a form that received premarket approval from the FDA.  The lack of testing performed on the device is seemingly irrelevant, so long as it received premarket approval from the FDA.

Democratic lawmakers are already considering a move to enact legislature reversing this decision.