The US Supreme Court yesterday walked carefully through America's most important law designed to protect accused criminals during police interrogation.
Upholding a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, the high court ruled 5-4 that police may not under most circumstances deliberately question a suspect twice - the first time without advising suspects of their right to remain silent - in order to elicit incriminating statements.
In a second case addressing the court's landmark 1966 Miranda decision, the justices ruled that a suspect's rights had not been violated because he had not been read the full "Miranda warning" before admitting that he illegally possessed a gun.
Monday's rulings indicate how difficult it has been for courts to interpret the law here, and observers say this latest episode in the history of Miranda does little to clarify such important issues.
"It shows you how badly they're spilt over Miranda, what it means and how much breadth it could be given," says James Tomkovicz of the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City, who filed amicus brief in one of the cases. "One of the more unfortunate aspects is that these badly split opinions - which were tied to the facts in the case - provide little guidance to law enforcement officers and the courts in future cases."
In the first case - Missouri v. Seibert - Patrice Seibert was convicted of second-degree murder for her role in a mobile home fire that killed a man. Police interviewed Ms. Seibert for an hour before advising of her rights under Miranda. After a coffee break, she was read those rights, and the questioning continued.
Based on her second statement, Seibert was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned her conviction, ruling that the detective had violated the Miranda rule.
By a slim majority Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that techniques designed to extract confessions (or at least elicit incriminating comments from suspects) when such suspects may not be fully aware of their right to remain silent and have an attorney present is improper.
Writing with the majority, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that the double interrogation technique (which is taught at national training sessions for police officers) "undermines the Miranda warning and obscures its meaning."
At the same time, the court left the door open for police to be able to use some confessions obtained after double interviews. Justice Kennedy said that police must be able to prove that the interrogation was not "calculated" to undermine Miranda.
Amy Bartholow, the public defender who represented Seibert, called the ruling "a victory for everyone" because it clarified an earlier court ruling that had allowed police to use information gleaned inadvertently before a Miranda warning was given, using a two step interrogation technique. "I think the police officers now have clarification that they can't use that...."
In the second Miranda case Monday, the court sided with police, throwing out a decision in favor of a Colorado man who had told an officer not to bother reading him the Miranda warnings.
When officers came to Samuel Patane's house to question him about a domestic case, they began to read the Miranda warning, but he said he already knew his rights. He then directed them to a gun in his bedroom and was charged with illegal possession of a firearm.
The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the gun could not be used as evidence against Patane because its discovery was the result of a statement made without a Miranda warning.
The Supreme Court - on another 5-4 decision - reversed that ruling. In a dissent written by Associate Justice David Souter, the minority warned that "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."
Associate Justice Breyer, writing alone in another dissenting opinion, called for courts to "exclude physical evidence derived from unwarned questioning unless the failure to provide Miranda warnings was in good faith."
Some analysts worry this muddies the waters on the Miranda rule, rather than further clarifying it.
"If a suspect says, 'Yes, I've got drugs in my pockets' before he's given a Miranda warning, and a police officer then reaches into his pocket and finds the drugs, they can be admitted in court, but his actual words cannot," says Professor Tomkovicz, calling such a view destructive of the Fifth Amendment principle behind Miranda.