The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will review a Colorado case that could help further define the constitutional ban on forced confessions. At issue is whether physical evidence that authorities discovered because of what a suspect told them before being fully informed of his rights should have been admissible in court.
Under the court's famous 1966 Miranda ruling, a suspect's statement in police custody cannot be used against him unless police first tell him that he has a right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning.
But in this case, U.S. v. Patane, No. 02-1183, the issue is whether courts must also exclude physical evidence police find based on information a suspect gave without first being "Mirandized."
Legal analysts said the issue is especially relevant to murder investigations, where two crucial pieces of evidence -- the victim's body and the murder weapon -- are often found only because of comments made by suspects.
"It's not most cases, but it's not unusual," said William J. Stuntz, a professor of law at Harvard University. "They read the warnings, the suspect invokes his right to remain silent, and then they don't stop questioning him. They know the confession is inadmissible, but they feel they can at least use the physical evidence."
The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that a confession given after a suspect is told of his rights can be used as evidence even if it was obtained thanks to a previous "un-Mirandized" statement.
Lower courts have since interpreted the decision to mean that physical evidence may be likewise included.
But last year, a three-judge panel of the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the 1985 case had not actually settled the issue. That case, the 10th Circuit noted, had referred to the Miranda warnings as not necessarily required by the Constitution.
In light of a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed that Miranda had established a fundamental constitutional right, the 10th Circuit ruled, physical evidence found thanks to an "un-Mirandized" statement must be suppressed as what legal doctrine calls "fruit of a poisonous tree."
"Now that the court has said Miranda is constitutionally compelled, it's hard to see how you can take un-Mirandized statements and use them without violating the right against self-incrimination," said Deanne Maynard, a Washington lawyer and Supreme Court practitioner who studies Miranda issues for the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers.
The Supreme Court said it will hear the case in response to an appeal by the Justice Department, which argued in its brief that the 10th Circuit's decision would "impose serious costs on the administration of justice."
The Justice Department argued that the 2000 Supreme Court ruling specifically endorsed the notion that courts could admit physical evidence found as a result of suspects' un-Mirandized statements.
The case began on June 6, 2001, when Colorado Springs police officers arrested Samuel Francis Patane for violating a court order to stay away from his ex-girlfriend. Officers got as far as "the right to remain silent" when Patane told them that he already knew his rights and didn't need to hear the rest.
He then told the police they could find a .40-caliber Glock pistol on a shelf in his house. The discovery led to a federal indictment of Patane, who had previous drug convictions, on charges of possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony.
The court will hear oral arguments in the fall, and a decision is expected by July 2004.
Separately, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether federal age-discrimination law protects some younger workers against alleged "reverse discrimination" in favor of older workers.
The case, General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline, No. 02-1080, involves two 1997 labor agreements between General Dynamics Corp. and the United Auto Workers that guaranteed retirement health benefits only to employees who were at least 50 years old as of 1997.
Workers between the ages of 40 and 50 sued, claiming that they were victims of age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1969 (ADEA), which protects workers over the age of 40 against on-the-job discrimination.
A federal district judge dismissed the suit, but last year the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reinstated it, saying that the terms of the ADEA prohibit unfair treatment of anyone over 40.
Oral arguments will take place in the fall, and a decision is expected by July 2004.