Court rules double-questioning improper

Tuesday, June 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday warned police away from using a strategy intended to extract confessions from criminal suspects before telling them of their right to remain silent.

The court, on a 5-4 vote in a case from Missouri, said that intentionally questioning a suspect twice — the first time without reading the Miranda warning — is usually improper.

But the court left open the possibility that some confessions obtained after double interviews would be acceptable, providing police could prove the interrogation wasn’t intended to undermine the Miranda warning.

Criminal defense attorneys and civil libertarians had complained that the strategy was being used to get around the Supreme Court’s landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling, which requires that suspects in custody be told they have the right to remain silent.

The court had considered the treatment of murder suspect Patrice Seibert. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the two-step interrogation process used in her case was improper — a decision upheld by the nation’s highest court.

Such questioning can be successful because suspects may be more willing to talk before they’re told they have a right to remain silent. And when told of their rights later, they may not realize their first confession cannot be used against them. “The message for officers is you have to read rights first before questioning,” said Amy Bartholow, Seibert’s public defender. “Criminal defendants will have more rights in the interrogation room.”

Also Monday, the court sided with police in a separate Miranda case, throwing out a decision in the case of a Colorado man who had told an officer not to bother reading him the Miranda warnings.

Seibert was convicted of plotting to set a 1997 fire that killed a teenager who had been staying at the family trailer in Rolla. Justice David H. Souter, writing for himself and three other liberal justices, said the practice is worrisome because questioning tactics are taught at national training sessions.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed with those four that the interrogation technique “undermines the Miranda warning and obscures its meaning” but said police must be able to prove that the interrogation was not done “in a calculated way to undermine the Miranda warning.”

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas dissented.

In the second case, officers had come to Samuel Patane’s house to question him about a domestic case, and they told him he had a right to remain silent, but he said he already knew his warnings. He then directed them to a gun in his bedroom and was charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

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