The Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday that critics say will give police greater leeway in using pyschological tricks to make suspects confess in criminal cases.
By a 6-to-3 vote, the court sanctioned the murder conviction of a Rhode Island man who led police to a hidden murder weapon after officers needled him while alone with him in a paddy wagon. "There's a lot of handicapped children running around in this area," one officer said to another, within earshot of the suspect, "and God forbid one of them might find a weapon and . . . hurt themselves."
"It would be too bad if [a child] would pick up the gun and maybe kill herself," another officer concurred.
The suspect, Thomas J. Innis, then led police to the gun, he said, "because of the kids." The shotgun and the circumstances of its discovery helped convict Innis of the January 1975 shotgun murder of a taxicab driver.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court later threw out the conviction, saying that Innis had been tricked and that the police tactic violated the right of a suspect to avoid interrogation out of the presence of a lawyer. That right has been guaranteed under the U.S. Supreme Court's famous 1966 Miranda decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed yesterday with the state court. The comments of police in the paddy wagon were not an "interrogation," Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority, but just "a few offhand remarks" that were not even directed at Innis.
Some lawyers said yesterday the decision could be construed as a victory for suspects rather than police, in that the high court did at least draw a line on the trickery question. But others disliking where the line was drawn, said police were the clear winners. Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the three dissenters, was among those.
The decision "turns Miranda's unequivocal rule against any interrogation at all into a trap in which unwary suspects may be caught by police deception," Stevens said.Justice Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan also dissented, but for different reasons.
Prior cases have established that a suspect who desires a lawyer may not be interrograted without one. But increasing use of subtle psychological techniques by skilled police investigators required a clear definition of just what is an "interrogation."
Prosecutors, police and criminal defense lawyers were thus anxiously awaiting the Innis decision for the answer. But there were conflicting interpretations of what it meant.
Stewart's opinion clearly suggested that the strictest definition of an interrogation -- direct questions to a suspect -- was not enough to protect a suspect's rights. Any comments that police "should have known were reasonable likely to elicit an incriminating response" constitute interrogation, he said.
That broad definition was considered a partial victory for suspects by some lawyers. "The court rejected a mechanical test which would have been subject to abuse," said University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, an expert on the subject.
On the other hand, the court indicated that "subtle compulsion" by police might be acceptable under the Miranda rules. And it allowed the device employed by police in the Innis case, despite what dissenters Stevens, Marshall and Brennan thought was its obvious intent. "One can scarcely imagine a stronger appeal to the conscience of a suspect than the assertion that if the weapon is not found an innocent person will be hurt or killed," Marshall and Brenna wrote.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, who agreed with the result in the case, concluded that it would nevertheless generate even greater confusion among police and burden them with yet another subjective judgment to make while trying to do their duty.
In another action yesterday, the court blocked efforts to consolidate Atlanta's predominantly black school system and nine suburban school districts. The justices, without comment, affirmed a court ruling that such a broad desegregation remedy was too extreme in Atlanta's case.
Though the affirmance does not necessarily set guidelines for future cases, proponents of large-scale desegregation were concerned that Justice Byron White, who has generally supported most desegregation plans, joined with Burger, and Justices William Rehnquist, Lewis Powell, and Stewart in the case. Burger, Rehnquist, Powell and Stewart have in the past strongly questioned busing plans.
The future of busing, it is believed, now rests on a single Supreme Court vote.
The court's action was not a major departure from past rulings. It has previously struck down school cases as too extreme a remedy for segregation in a city surrounded by white suburbs.