The Supreme Court, renewing its bitter feud over suspects' rights, ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that police may lie to a lawyer to keep him from being present during questioning of a client and need not tell the suspect of his attorney's efforts to reach him.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the court's 1966 Miranda ruling, which requires police to inform a suspect of his right to remain silent and have an attorney present, does not mean that the court can "require the police to keep the suspect abreast of the status of his legal representation."
The Miranda ruling, she said, "strikes the proper balance between society's legitimate law enforcement interests and the protection of the defendant's Fifth Amendment rights" but should not be extended further.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined in an exceptionally sharp 35-page dissent by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, said "today, incommunicado questioning is embraced as a societal goal of the highest order that justifies police deception of the shabbiest kind."
Stevens said that, "like the police" in the case at issue, Moran v. Burbine, "the court has trampled on well-established legal principles and flouted the spirit of our . . . system of justice."
The case involved Michael K. Burbine of Cranston, R.I., arrested in 1977 in connection with a breaking and entering. After informers apparently reported that Burbine may have committed a brutal murder a year earlier in neighboring Providence, Cranston police called detectives there.
Meanwhile, Burbine's sister had called an attorney to represent him on the breaking-and-entering charge. The attorney called the Cranston police station and offered to represent Burbine if he was to be questioned that evening but was told that police were not going to do so.
Unaware of his attorney's efforts, Burbine was repeatedly given his Miranda warnings by Providence detectives, waived them and signed three written statements admitting the murder.
The confessions were admitted at his trial, but a federal appeals court last year said they should have been suppressed and ordered a new trial. O'Connor, for the majority, said that would not be necessary.
"The constitutional right to request the presence of an attorney belongs solely to the defendant," not to his lawyer, she said. "Because the evidence is clear that Burbine never asked for the services of an attorney, the telephone call from his lawyer had no relevance to the validity of the waiver or the admissibility of the statements" at trial, she said.
Police acted properly in this case, she said, and did not conspire to deprive Burbine of his rights.
"Egregious" police deception could violate a suspect's rights, she added, saying Stevens' "apocalyptic suggestion that we have approved any and all forms of police misconduct is demonstrably incorrect." O'Connor said the "dissent's misreading of Miranda is itself breathtaking in its scope."
In other action, the court ruled, 7 to 2, that the constitutional right to confront witnesses does not require the government to prove that a co-conspirator is unavailable to testify in order to use the co-conspirator's out-of-court statements as evidence. The case is U.S. v. Inadi.