The Supreme Court: Confessing Illegally

Confessing Illegally

Tossing out a confession at trial can frequently result in the loss of a conviction, so police officials must be especially careful when someone is arrested that they have the right to arrest that person. In a landmark case, Brown v. Illinois (1975), the Supreme Court ruled that a confession “obtained by exploitation of an illegal arrest” may not be used against a criminal defendant.

Court Connotations

Per curiam is a Latin phrase for “by the court.” A per curiam decision means it is a decision by the entire court, with no judge identified as the specific author.

The Court reaffirmed the rights of defendants if the confession was obtained through an illegal arrest in a recent test case—Kaupp v. Texas—with a per curiam decision by the court on May 5, 2003. The Court vacated the lower court ruling and sent it back to the Texas court for further consideration. Let's look at the facts of the case.

Robert Justin Kaupp was suspected of participating in the murder of a 14-year-old girl, who was the sister of his close friend. The friend confessed to the murder and implicated Kaupp.

Living Laws

If the police come to your home and want to take you in for questioning, you do have the right to refuse if they do not have an arrest warrant, which is issued by the court and which you can ask to see before allowing the police to take you in. If they do have a warrant, they must read you your Miranda rights before starting to question you. You can refuse to answer questions and seek legal advice before answering questions.

The Texas police were unable to get approval for a warrant to question Kaupp, and they didn't have enough evidence against him. Instead, police woke Kaupp from his bed at 3 A.M., took him from his bed clad only in his underwear to the location of the crime scene, and then took him to the police station for questioning. The police never told him he was free to decline to go with them.

Once they got Kaupp to the interrogation room, they read him his rights. At first he denied involvement, but after learning about the brother's confession he admitted being involved in the crime. He did not admit to causing the fatal wound or confessing to the murder, for which he was later indicted.

Kaupp's attorney tried unsuccessfully to suppress the confession during trial as fruit of an illegal arrest. Kaupp was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison. The Texas State Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision to admit the confession. Kaupp then appealed to the United States Supreme Court on the basis that his seizure from his bedroom violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, so therefore the confession should not have been admitted.

The United States Supreme Court vacated the lower courts and found the seizure of Kaupp was in essence an illegal arrest. In the per curiam decision, the Court wrote:

  • “Such involuntary transport to a police station for questioning is 'sufficiently like arres[t] to invoke the traditional rule that arrests may constitutionally be made only on probable cause' … The state does not claim to have had probable cause here, and a straightforward application of the test just mentioned shows beyond cavil that Kaupp was arrested within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment … A 17-year-old boy was awakened in his bedroom at three in the morning by at least three police officers, one of whom stated 'we need to go and talk.' He was taken out in handcuffs, without shoes, dressed only in his underwear in January, placed in a patrol car, driven to the scene of a crime and then to the sheriff's offices, where he was taken into an interrogation room and questioned … Kaupp's 'Okay' in response to Pinkins's [the police officer] statement is no showing of consent under the circumstances. Pinkins offered Kaupp no choice, and a group of police officers rousing an adolescent out of bed in the middle of the night with the words 'we need to go and talk' presents no option but 'to go.' There is no reason to think Kaupp's answer was anything more than 'a mere submission to a claim of lawful authority.'”

Cases can be won and lost on a technicality. Knowing the technicalities and avoiding overstepping the rules set to protect people's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment are critical in all arrest situations. Next we'll explore the rights of prisoners being punished for their crimes.

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.