Court Rules Police Double-Questioning Technique Is Improper  

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; 4:00 PM

The Supreme Court ruled today that police cannot delay reading suspects their Miranda rights until after they have already confessed, criticizing what it called a popular law enforcement tactic that was designed to "undermine" the familiar Miranda warnings.

In a separate case, the court ruled that even when officers fail to warn suspects of their rights, they can still use key physical evidence obtained through a defendant's unwarned statements at trial.

The rulings came in two closely watched cases that attempted to further clarify the court's landmark 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona. The Justices upheld Miranda in 2000, declaring that requiring police to inform suspects that they had rights including those to remain silent and to have an attorney present -- and not to interrogate suspects unless they waive those rights -- is a constitutional rule. But that opinion did not spell out if any exceptions would be permitted.

Supporters of Miranda were especially watching a Missouri case, decided by the court today, that spotlighted the technique of eliciting confessions from suspects before reading them their rights, then securing the same confession after giving the Miranda warning.

In that case, Missouri v. Seibert, No. 02-1371, a woman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her knowledge of a plot to burn a trailer to cover up the death of her 12-year-old son.

The woman, Patrice Seibert, had been concerned that she would be charged with neglect in the death of her severely disabled son, Jonathan, because of bedsores on his body. Two of her teenage sons and two of their friends hatched a plan in Seibert's presence to burn the trailer. To make it seem that Jonathan had not been left alone, they left a mentally disabled youth, Donald Rector, 17, in the trailer before setting it afire. Rector died of smoke inhalation.

Richard Hanrahan, a police detective in Rolla, Mo., arrested Seibert in the middle of the night and elicited a confession without giving her a Miranda warning. He then took a short break, read her her rights, and she confessed again.

The Missouri Supreme Court threw out the confession, and the state, joined by the Bush administration, appealed. The Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, upheld the decision today.

Writing for the court, Justice David H. Souter said Seibert's statements were inadmissible because the "question-first" interrogation tactic was designed to mislead and confuse suspects about whether they have the right to stay silent.

"The reason that question-first is catching on is as obvious as its manifest purpose, which is to get a confession the suspect would not make if he understood his rights at the outset,'' Souter said in his opinion, which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. "The sensible underlying assumption is that with one confession in hand before the warnings, the interrogator can count on getting its duplicate, with trifling additional trouble.''

Hanrahan testified that he had been trained in this two-step interrogation by a "national institute.'' Although Breyer's opinion said the court had no statistics on the frequency of the practice, it "is not confined to Rolla, Missouri," and is clearly a tactic "of some popularity" among police.

Breyer filed a separate concurring opinion, as did Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote a dissent, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The other case decided today turned on another Miranda issue: Must physical evidence gathered because of a statement made without a Miranda warning be excluded from a case? The court, by a vote of 5 to 4, said no.

In that case, U.S. v. Patane, No. 02-1183, a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent began advising Samuel Francis Patane of his rights when Patane, a convicted felon, was arrested for illegal possession of a pistol.

Patane interrupted the agent, saying he already knew his rights, and then directed the agent where to find the gun. Patane sought to have that evidence excluded from his trial.

The Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed that the gun should be excluded. The court said that because Miranda has been affirmed as a constitutional rule, it mandates the same sort of exclusion of improperly obtained physical evidence that the court has required in earlier cases where searches were based on a suspect's unwarned statements.

But Thomas disagreed. Writing for the court today in an opinion joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, he said excluding physical evidence derived from an unwarned statement would be an unlawful extension of Miranda. "It is not for this Court to impose its preferred police practices on either federal law enforcement officials or their state counterparts,'' the opinion said.

Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, joined by O'Connor. But Souter, Stevens and Ginsburg dissented, saying that the majority's opinion provided an incentive for police to omit Miranda warnings because they could more easily gather crucial physical evidence that way. Breyer dissented separately.

"There is, of course, a price for excluding evidence, but the Fifth Amendment is worth a price,'' the dissent said. "There is no way to read this case except as an unjustifiable invitation to law enforcement officers to flout Miranda when there may be physical evidence to be gained.''

2004 The Washington Post Company