Delayed Court Appearances May Invalidate Confessions

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some voluntary confessions are not admissible in federal court if authorities waited too long to get suspects to their first court appearances.

The court split 5 to 4 in interpreting a federal statute that both sides acknowledged was less than clear. But the majority, led by Justice David H. Souter, said the best reading of congressional intent is that long delays between an arrest and an appearance before a judge raise doubt about the validity of an admission of guilt.

Without such a rule, Souter wrote, "federal agents would be free to question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to."

He was joined by the court's more liberal justices -- John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- as well as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

The court was interpreting a 1968 law that has split the appellate courts. It provides two somewhat confusing holdings: one, that "a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given," and two, that a confession "shall not be inadmissible" if it is found by a judge to be voluntary and made within six hours of arrest.

Attorneys for Johnnie Corley contested the use of his confession to robbing a bank in Norristown, Pa., under the second holding. Corley first began confessing to the crime after he was in custody for 9 1/2 hours; he finished the next day and was not brought before a magistrate until 29 1/2 hours after his arrest.

The court said its long list of cases governing such confessions, known as the McNabb-Mallory rule, still stood. It said lower courts must consider whether delaying a suspect's first court appearance more than six hours was unreasonable or unnecessary. If so, the confession must be suppressed. That analysis did not take place in Corley's case, Souter wrote.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the more conservative minority, said the court ignored part of the statute to focus on the "negative implication" of the other.

Because the statute specifically approves the use of confessions obtained within six hours of a suspect's being taken into custody, Alito wrote, "the court infers that Congress must have contemplated that a voluntary confession could be suppressed based solely on a delay of more than six hours."

The case is Corley v. United States.

Navajo Nation

The court unanimously -- and emphatically -- ended the Navajo Nation's attempt to collect $600 million from the federal government for coal mining leases on Indian land that it says were improperly negotiated.

The court threw out the 16-year-old suit that said federal officials failed to act in the tribe's best interests when negotiating with Peabody Energy Corp., resulting in a loss of revenue.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation initially in 2003. And in rejecting the lawsuit yesterday based on a different legal gambit, the court made it clear it was not interested in hearing arguments again.

"This case is at an end," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.

The case is United States v. Navajo Nation.

Legal Fees

The court agreed to consider next term whether a judge may reward especially effective public-interest attorneys with higher fees.

A federal judge in Georgia increased the fees to more than $10 million for a group of attorneys whose winning suit forced dramatic changes in the state's foster care system.

The state has made many changes because of the lawsuit, but it balked at paying the attorneys more than a formula allows.

The case is Perdue v. Kenny A.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

The court without comment turned down a petition from former Black Panther and radio reporter Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose long-running appeal of his conviction in the slaying of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 has drawn much attention.

Abu-Jamal is seeking a new trial on grounds that prosecutors excluded blacks from the jury that convicted him.

The court did not act on a cross-petition from the state. It is appealing a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit that upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction but set aside his death sentence.

The case the court declined to hear is Abu-Jamal v. Beard.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company