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Supreme Court rules that police can ad lib Miranda warnings

Police officers do not have to use exact wording when delivering Miranda warnings to criminal suspects, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 7-to-2 decision.

By Staff writer / February 23, 2010

In a 7-to-2 decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that police do not have to use exact wording when delivering Miranda warnings to criminal suspects.

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Washington

Police officers are not required to use exact, cookie-cutter phrasing while advising criminal suspects of their right to have a lawyer present with them throughout a police interrogation, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

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In a 7-to-2 decision, the high court sought to clarify the rule requiring issuance of so-called Miranda warnings to suspects who are about to be questioned by police.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that police agencies need not repeat the precise wording used by federal agents in pre-interrogation warnings. The key, she said, is that the suspect be given adequate advice covering all the Miranda protections.

“The four warnings Miranda requires are invariable, but this court has not dictated the words in which the essential information must be conveyed,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

She said that reviewing courts need not parse an officer’s Miranda warnings with the precision of construing a will or defining an easement. “The inquiry is simply whether the warnings reasonably convey to a suspect his rights as required by Miranda,” she wrote.

The warnings, named for a landmark Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona, include the familiar advice that the suspect has a right to remain silent and that anything said can and will be used against him in a court of law. The warnings include a notification that the suspect enjoys a right to consult a lawyer.

The key question in Florida v. Powell was whether police gave enough notice to Kevin Powell that he was entitled to have a lawyer physically present with him in the interrogation room as the questions were being asked.

Mr. Powell was arrested in August 2004 by Tampa police during a robbery investigation. Police found Powell at his girlfriend’s apartment. During a search they found a loaded pistol under a bed.

Powell was a convicted felon with 10 prior offenses and could not lawfully be in possession of a firearm.

After discovering the gun, police arrested Powell and took him to headquarters for questioning. Prior to the interrogation, police read Powell his Miranda warnings. They included the sentence: “You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions.” The warning also included, “You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview."

Powell waived his right to remain silent and confessed that the pistol belonged to him. He later went to trial and testified that his confession was false and had been coerced by police. He said the loaded pistol was not his.

Instead, he told the jury that the officers threatened that if he didn’t admit to the gun charge they would charge his girlfriend with a crime, expel her from public housing, and have her children taken away from her. The jury found Powell guilty and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

On appeal, his lawyer argued that police gave a confusing version of the Miranda warnings prior to his interrogation and the alleged confession. The appeals court agreed, throwing out the confession and overturning his conviction. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed.

The state high court said that informing a suspect of his right to consult a lawyer before answering any questions did not adequately advise the suspect of his additional right to have an attorney present throughout the interrogation.

“The ‘before questioning’ warning suggests to a reasonable person in the suspect’s shoes that he or she can only consult with an attorney before questioning; there is nothing in that statement that suggests the attorney can be present during the actual questioning,” the Florida Supreme Court said in its ruling.

In reversing that decision, Ginsburg said the Florida Supreme Court failed to view the police warnings in full context with the other warnings. “Different words were used in the advice Powell received, but they communicated the same essential message,” she wrote.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented. “This is, I believe, the first time the court has approved a warning which, if given its natural reading, entirely omitted an essential element of a suspect’s rights,” Justice Stevens wrote.

“The more natural reading of the warning Powell was given … is that Powell only had the right to consult with an attorney before the interrogation began, not that he had the right to have an attorney with him during questioning.”

Stevens also dissented on whether the US Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the Florida case in the first place. The Florida Supreme Court had grounded its decision, at least in part, on its reading of the Florida Constitution. “In my view, respect for the independence of state courts, and their authority to set the rules by which their citizens are protected, should result in a dismissal of this petition,” he wrote.

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