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14 Days: Supreme Court Sets Miranda Deadline

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

In an unusual unanimous opinion written for the Court by Justice Scalia with Justices Thomas and Stevens concurring, the Supreme Court handed down its second case this term revolving around the Miranda warnings. The warnings, given when a suspect enters police custody are the most familiar part of the justice system to many. Stemming from the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona case, the police must remind a suspect in custody that he or she has a right to remain silent, to an attorney and to have an attorney provided if they cannot afford one. There are many nuances to the Miranda rules and one of them was addressed by the Supreme Court yesterday.

The case before the court involved Michael B. Shatzer, who was serving a prison sentence for a sex offence. In 2003, while in prison, he was asked about allegations he had abused his son made by a detective investigating the matter. He invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and would not answer questions without a lawyer. He was returned to the general population of the prison. Two years later, the police re-opened the case and tried again. This time Shatzer waived his right to remain silent, answered questions and made incriminating statements about his sexual abuse of his son. At trial, Shatzer's attorney tried to have the statements suppressed because the police had "resumed questioning" after he had invoked his right to counsel.

Once a suspect under questioning refuses to talk without counsel, how long must law enforcement wait before attempting to re-question him (or her) again without violating their right to refuse questions under the Miranda and Edwards v. Arizona cases? Is the prohibition on questioning "eternal?" According to their decision, the Court said no, and imposed a 14 day expiration date for Miranda warnings. The imposition of an arbitrary deadline is an unusual step, but Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, believed it to be clear guide to law enforcement, telling them what is and is not acceptable in attempts to re-question a suspect.

The reason for the 14 day timeline was Justice Scalia said, to provide, "plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel, and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody." After that amount of time, a suspect could waive his rights and talk without counsel without a court having to presume such confession was coerced, or made without an understanding of his rights.

Justice Stevens concurred with the majority opinion of the court, but had doubts about the reason for the timeline, writing that it "may well prove inaccurate in many circumstances." Justice Thomas concurred with the opinion, but also found the number arbitrary, writing that any amount of time from 0 -100 days might work just as well.

The Court will hear one more Miranda related case this term, Berghuis v. Thompkins, addressing the questioning of a suspect who said he understood the Miranda warnings, but did not invoke or waive his rights under them.

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