Monday, February 27, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #45 - Part 4

Outrage of the Week: attacking Miranda

You know the famous Miranda warning, the "you have the right to remain silent and so on" warning. It grew out of a 1966 SCOTUS decision that involved police questioning of a man named Ernesto Miranda. Despite claims it would "tie the hands" of police and lead to mountains of crime and crooks getting off on technicalities if cops couldn't beat a supposed "confession" out of someone, the fact is most all police forces now live quite comfortably with it and in fact crime has gone down in the years since.

Even so, there have been a number of attempts to cut down the scope or the requirements of the warning, and those have met with some success in the courts. The big issue is that you don't need to be read your rights until you are "in custody," which has come to be understood in a legal sense as the point at which a reasonable person would think they cannot end the questioning and leave.

Okay. There is this guy named Randall Lee Fields. He was in prison on a 45-day sentence for disturbing the peace. During that time, a jail guard and some sheriff's deputies took him from his cell to a conference room. Deputies told him - supposedly several times - that he was free to leave at any time.

They then questioned him for seven hours about a charge he had sexually assaulted a minor. Fields eventually confessed and was charged and convicted of criminal sexual assault. He was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison.

He appealed the use of his confession on the grounds he was never given his Miranda rights on the sexual assault charge. The district court and then the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati both agreed, throwing out confession and conviction, ruling it is required that police read inmates their Miranda rights anytime they are isolated from the rest of the inmates in situations where they would be likely to incriminate themselves.

(This does not mean he couldn't be re-tried, the prosecution just couldn't use his confession.)

On February 21, the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, overturned that decision and reinstated the conviction. The Court ruled that despite being in prison, Fields was not in "custody" as defined by Miranda and therefore there was no need to tell him his rights.

Writing for majority, Justice Sam Alito said that "Imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda." He argued that questioning an inmate doesn't bring the "shock" of arrest that free people experience, that there is also no hope for a quick release if the inmate talks to police, like there would be for a free person, and there is also no chance of a lighter sentence or any type of reprisal for not talking because the person is already in prison.

So what Alito argued - and five of these great legal minds, supposedly the best legal minds of our nation, agreed with him - is if you're in jail for disturbing the peace, there is no "shock" involved in being presented with a charge of sexual assault of a minor, that there is no essential difference between 45 days and 15 years, and that a prisoner, alone in a room with a prison guard and a couple of cops, feels completely free to leave that room, go back to their prison cell at any time with no fear whatsoever of any sort of reprisal.

These people are idiots! And their decision is the Outrage of the Week.

The case is Howes v. Fields, 10-680

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