Local News

Saturday, Jun 12 2010 12:00 PM

U.S. Supreme Court clarifies Miranda rights, local attorneys mixed on decision

BY JASON KOTOWSKI, Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Miranda rights for criminal suspects will not change the way local law enforcement conducts interrogations, but some defense attorneys are concerned the decision will lead to Miranda rights being narrowed even further.

The court's 5-4 opinion on Berghuis vs. Thompkins makes it clear that after suspects are read their rights, they must tell police they wish to remain silent for an interrogation to stop. If a suspect doesn't speak up, police can continue to ask questions.

Defense attorney Daniel Rodriguez said the decision opens the door for further erosion of Miranda rights.

"Time will tell whether this activist conservative-majority Supreme Court is doing the right thing in moving back the clock on Miranda rights," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez pointed out that in Berghuis vs. Thompkins, the suspect only made an incriminating statement after three hours of constant interrogation during which he had largely remained silent. It should have been understood that he had invoked his rights through his silence, he said.

Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels, however, said Miranda had been broadened over the years far beyond what was necessary for its original goal of protecting suspects from being coerced into making confessions. Narrowing Miranda's scope and clarifying that a suspect must speak up is a positive development, he said.

Miranda rights were established in a 1966 decision requiring law enforcement to inform suspects of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney. Jagels said the police culture in which Miranda came about -- where numerous suspects were coerced into making confessions -- has dramatically changed for the better in the 40-plus years since it came into being.

Even a 13-year-old knows he has the right to remain silent just from watching cop shows on TV, he said.

"If the statement that the suspect makes is free and voluntary and not the byproduct of coercion of any sort, then why are defense attorneys so set on preventing the trier of fact from hearing it?" Jagels said. "It's of no value to anyone to withhold it except to a criminal defense attorney who wants to win."

But defense attorney Michael Lukehart said that being arrested and questioned is itself inherently coercive. The burden to speak up should not be placed on the citizen, who is in the weaker position compared to the officers.

Lukehart said he can imagine five years from now that invoking Miranda rights will require the citizen to stand up and shout that he wishes to remain silent. It's placing too much on a person who is already in an incredibly stressful situation.

"If I sit you down in a chair in a little room and shine a harsh light in your face and question you for three hours," Lukehart said, "under those conditions I could get a ham sandwich to confess."

Not all defense attorneys see the decision as unfavorable.

A system in which people give a clear answer regarding their awareness of their rights is preferable to one in which there's uncertainty, Kern County Public Defender Arthur Titus said. By saying they wish to remain silent, there can be no confusion over whether the person understands his or her rights.

The decision will not effect how the Bakersfield Police Department or Kern County Sheriff's Department conducts interrogations. Sheriff's Senior Deputy Michael Whorf said the court has clarified Miranda for the suspect, and the department has always conducted interviews within the confines of the law and has continued to ask questions until a suspect invokes his rights.

"This is just defining the fact that just because a suspect sits there and doesn't say anything, that doesn't mean he's invoked his rights," Whorf said.

Bakersfield police Sgt. Mary DeGeare also said there would be no changes in BPD policy as a result of the decision.

No matter where they stood on the issue, all attorneys interviewed expect that Miranda will no doubt be examined again.

"The case law on Miranda is extremely complex and always evolving, and every time you think you saw the last form there ends up being some new permutation of it," Jagels said.

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