The Supreme Court: Arresting Rules

Arresting Rules

When arresting people and getting them ready to stand trial, police must carefully follow rules set by Court precedent or the people arrested could be freed on a technicality—even if they are guilty. You've probably heard police read Miranda rights on many of the cop shows on television or in the movies. Reading those rights at the proper time is critical if police hope to use whatever is said when the case later goes to trial.

In addition to the 2000 landmark case upholding Miranda, I'll review rules related to forcing medication to make someone competent to stand trial, and those related to making a legal arrest so any confession obtained can be used at trial.

Upholding Miranda

Just the Facts

In 1968, outraged by the Miranda ruling, Congress tried to overrule the ruling by passing the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, which included a provision in Section 3501 to allow a confession—if given voluntarily—before Miranda rights are read. Even though this was written into the law, the provision was ignored by law enforcement people because they believed the Supreme Court Miranda ruling to be paramount.

When the Supreme Court decided to take the case Dickerson v. United States, many thought that Chief Justice Rehnquist would finally get his chance to overturn the 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona. The key question to be decided in Dickerson was whether Section 3501 of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, which Congress passed to overrule Miranda, should stand.

Rehnquist, as an official in the Justice Department in the 1970s, was a vocal opponent of Miranda. Most expected he would use Dickerson to finally overturn the 1966 precedent set by the Supreme Court. In a surprise to most court observers, he not only voted to affirm Miranda rights, he wrote the opinion in support of them.

Court Connotations

An interlocutory appeal is one that asks an appellate court to decide a legal issue that cannot be resolved on the facts of the case, but whose resolution is essential to a final decision in the case. This type of appeal prevents a trial from going forward until the appeal process is completed.

Now let's look at the case that netted this surprising result. Charles Dickerson's car, an Oldsmobile Ciera, was seen by eyewitnesses in January 1997 at the scene of a bank robbery that netted $876. When first questioned by FBI agents, Dickerson said he was in the vicinity of the bank at the time of the robbery, but was not involved. In a second statement he said that a relative named “Jimmy” may have robbed the bank while hitching a ride with him. The point of contention that took this case all the way to the Supreme Court was whether he was read his rights before the second statement was made.

Dickerson was indicted for bank robbery, conspiracy to commit bank robbery and using a firearm in the course of committing a crime of violence. Before being tried, Dickerson's attorney filed a motion to suppress the confession on the grounds that he had not received Miranda warnings before being interrogated.

The district court agreed and granted the motion to suppress his confession. The government appealed this ruling to the 4th Circuit Court as an interlocutory appeal.

Living Laws

The requirement that you must receive a Miranda warning still stands. Police must warn you that you have the right to remain silent and that you have the right to have an attorney present during questioning if they want to use any confession they obtain during questioning as evidence.

The 4th Circuit Court reversed the district court's suppression order. While it agreed Dickerson had not received his Miranda warnings, the circuit court invoked Section 3501 of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, which it said made Dickerson's voluntary confession admissible. The circuit court decided that Miranda was not a constitutional holding and therefore Congress could by statute have the final word on the question of admissibility.

Interestingly, neither Dickerson's legal team nor the government focused on the 1968 crime bill in arguing their appeals cases. The issue was raised in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. Experts writing about the case said courts normally base their rulings on what both sides argue in court or mention in later filings. In this case the 4th Circuit Court looked outside of this basic information to make its ruling.

In a 7 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court made it clear to the circuit court they had overstepped their bounds and upheld the district court's decision to suppress the confession. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the decision and was joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, O'Connor, Souter, and Stevens. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Thomas. In writing the Court's opinion, Rehnquist said:

  • “In Miranda v. Arizona … we held that certain warnings must be given before a suspect's statement made during custodial interrogation could be admitted in evidence. In the wake of that decision, Congress enacted [the Omnibus Crime bill with Section 3501] which in essence laid down a rule that the admissibility of such statements should turn only on whether or not they were voluntarily made. We hold that Miranda, being a constitutional decision of this Court, may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress, and we decline to overrule Miranda ourselves. We therefore hold that Miranda and its progeny in this Court govern the admissibility of statements made during custodial interrogation in both state and federal courts.”

Justice Scalia believes the Supreme Court went too far in its ruling. In his dissent, he wrote:

  • “Those to whom judicial decisions are an unconnected series of judgments that produce either favored or disfavored results will doubtless greet today's decision as a paragon of moderation, since it declines to overrule Miranda v. Arizona, (1966). Those who understand the judicial process will appreciate that today's decision is not a reaffirmation of Miranda, but a radical revision of the most significant element of Miranda (as of all cases): the rationale that gives it a permanent place in our jurisprudence … As the Court chooses to describe that principle, statutes of Congress can be disregarded, not only when what they prescribe violates the Constitution, but when what they prescribe contradicts a decision of this Court that 'announced a constitutional rule' … the only thing that can possibly mean in the context of this case is that this Court has the power, not merely to apply the Constitution but to expand it, imposing what it regards as useful 'prophylactic' restrictions upon Congress and the States. That is an immense and frightening antidemocratic power, and it does not exist.”

Scalia promised he would not follow the majority in future rulings related to Miranda and he would continue to apply his dissent in “all cases where there was a sustainable finding that the defendant's confession was voluntary.”

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.