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You Have the Right to Remain Silent
Monday, 2009 January 5 - 9:49 pm
I'm generally fascinated by Constitutional law issues. I regularly read a blog called SCOTUS Blog, and today they listed several cases up for certiorari. The one that I'm particularly interested in is Illinois v. Lopez.

In the case, a 15-year old kid was taken to a police station for questioning in a homicide case. He was not placed under arrest when taken in, but there's some question whether he (and his terrified mother) actually understood that he was not obligated to comply with the armed detectives' directives to accompany them to the police station. While at the police station, he was placed in a room and questioned, then left in the room with the door closed for four hours; the door was not locked, but he was told to knock if he needed to use the bathroom or if he needed anything to eat or drink. This made him believe that he was locked in and not free to leave.

While sitting in the room, one of his friends implicated him in the crime. The kid was informed of this fact, and he subsequently made an oral confession. He was then read his Miranda rights, and shortly thereafter, he signed a handwritten confession. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime; the primary evidence presented at trial was his own written confession. All parties agreed that the oral confession was not admissible as evidence, since it came before the Miranda warnings.

I won't go all into the legal issues involved, but the key one in this case seems to be this: did the police deliberately try to skirt the Miranda requirement by questioning the kid while he wasn't technically under arrest? In a previous ruling in Missouri v. Seibert, the Supreme Court specifically disallowed the procedure of questioning a suspect until obtaining a confession, then quickly reading the Miranda rights and repeating the question as a way to deliberately skirt the spirit of the Miranda process. The Illinois Supreme Court thought that that precedent applied here, and they overturned the kid's conviction (PDF file).

I find this interesting because I've always thought that there was a big grey area in the law surrounding Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and police often take advantage of that. They'll ask someone who's pulled over for a minor traffic offense, "Can I look inside your vehicle?" If the person says "yes", then that's a waiver of Fourth Amendment rights. Or they'll sit a 15-year-old kid in an interrogation room until he "volunteers" a confession. But if people were better educated about their own rights, they wouldn't fall for these tricks.

It's a tough issue, because on the one hand, of course we want police to be able to outwit criminals who aren't smart enough to avoid incriminating themselves. But on the other hand, there's a fine line between that and coercive police techniques to induce a confession. I think one thing would help avoid these sort of issues: when police are questioning someone who is not under arrest or detention, they should specifically be required to say: "You are free to leave if you choose." I think a lot of people simply assume they're required to do whatever a police officer asks, and that seems like a situation just ripe for abuse.
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