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Oregon v. Elstad

Inadmissible Confessions?

Michael James Elstad was suspected of committing a burglary in his neighborhood in December of 1981, and was picked up by two police officers at his home in Salem, Oregon. He was not given Miranda warnings before making a voluntary confession to one of the officers. Elstad was then transported to the police station and advised of his rights. He waived his Miranda rights and executed a written confession. No threats or promises were involved in making his confessions either at his home or at the sheriff's office.

Elstad was tried in an Oregon trial court. The defendant tried to suppress both his oral statement and signed confession saying that his first, illegally obtained confession tainted his second confession as, in Elstad's defense, "fruit of the poisonous tree." The U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Bayer (1947), remarked that after an accused had once "let the cat out of the bag" by confessing, no matter what the inducement, he was never thereafter free of the psychological and practical disadvantages of having confessed. The Court also held that making a confession under circumstances that preclude its use did not perpetually disable the confessor from making a usable confession after those conditions had been removed. Wong Sun v. United States (1963) was a case in which the Supreme Court held that evidence and witnesses discovered as a result of a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment must be excluded from evidence. This doctrine also applied to whether an illegal confession and the admissibility of that confession was "sufficiently an act of free will to purge the primary taint of the unlawful invasion." Thus, Elstad's first incriminating statement--made at the defendant's home--was excluded from evidence because he had not been advised of his Miranda rights. The circuit court judge ruled that the other, written confession made at the Sheriff's office, in full compliance with Miranda, was given freely, voluntarily, and knowingly after waiving Miranda rights, and that it was not tainted in any way by the previous brief statement. The second confession was admitted in evidence, and Elstad was found guilty of burglary in the first degree.

Elstad then appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The state of Oregon as respondent recognized that the first incriminating statement was inadmissible as evidence because Elstad was in custody and was not given Miranda warnings when he first confessed. The state claimed that the second confession was not tainted, because of the careful administration of Miranda warnings. The court of appeals found that the main constitutional inquiry was whether there had been a sufficient break in the stream of events between the inadmissible statement and the written confession to insulate the latter statement from the effect of the previous. The court concluded that the period separating the two incidents was brief and therefore the "cat was sufficiently out of the bag to exert a coercive impact on latter admissions." The state trial court's decision was reversed. The state of Oregon petitioned to the Oregon Supreme Court for review, but the court declined to review the case. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted certiorari, a written order to a lower court to forward the proceedings of a case for review, and subsequently, the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Oregon v. Elstad - Miranda Warnings, Inadmissible Confessions?, The Second Confession Is Admissible, Dissenting Opinions, Impact, Further Readings