WASHINGTON -- Police cannot extract information from suspects first and only then inform them of their right to remain silent, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in outlawing an interrogation tactic often used by investigators.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court determined the two-step interrogation process "effectively threatens to thwart" protections against coerced confessions afforded by the familiar Miranda warning, which begins, "You have the right to remain silent."
Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter said the tactics in a Missouri case "by any objective measure reveal a police strategy adapted to undermine the Miranda warnings." Souter said some such interrogations could be allowed if police could show they were not trying to circumvent Miranda.
The decision was among four involving Miranda warnings that the court decided this session, with two coming down in favor of law enforcement and the other two, including the double-interview case, going against police.
In a second decision yesterday, the court sided with police in the case of a Colorado man who told an officer not to bother reading him his rights.
The high court also agreed yesterday to decide whether the federal government can prosecute sick people who smoke marijuana on the advice of a doctor.
The case involves the Bush administration's appeal of a case it lost last year involving two California women who say marijuana is the only drug that eases their chronic pain and other medical problems. The case also affects Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state, which have medical marijuana laws similar to California's allowing patients to grow, use or receive marijuana if they have a doctor's recommendation. Thirty-five states in all have passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value. Patients' rights groups immediately hailed the high court's decision to hear the case.
The Supreme Court ruling on two-step interrogation methods arose in the case of murder suspect Patrice Seibert.
Seibert was convicted of plotting to set a 1997 fire that killed a teenager who had been staying at the family home in Rolla, Mo., a rural town in the Ozark Mountains. Police said she arranged to have her home burned to cover up the death of her 12-year-old son, who had cerebral palsy. Seibert had been worried she would be charged with neglect in her son's death.
According to the ruling, Seibert was questioned for about 40 minutes at 3 a.m. a few days after the fire without first being given her Miranda warning. At the end of the interrogation, she admitted the fire was set to cover up the death.
After a break, police read the Miranda warning, then turned on a tape recorder and confronted her about the statements she had just made.
Seibert was convicted of second-degree murder, but she successfully appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court to have the statements suppressed in court. The US Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
The second case decided yesterday involved Samuel Patane, who was questioned by Colorado Springs police about a domestic case and told him he had a right to remain silent, 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 Supreme Court also took these actions yesterday:
Declined to consider whether a landmark disability law requires that disabled moviegoers get better seats than the front-row seating they're often given in new stadium-seating theaters.
Declined to consider an appeal of an Oklahoma ruling giving a lawsuit over the safety of minivan air bags national class-action status.
Agreed to hear a lawsuit charging that the CIA didn't fulfill its pledge of lifetime support to former Eastern Bloc spies living in the United States.
Agreed to consider the standard for proving securities fraud in a case involving Dura Pharmaceuticals Inc., a maker of asthma and allergy medicines.
Agreed to hear a case raising the question of when governments can tax Indian property.