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Confession

Recent Developments

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fueled long-standing speculation that Miranda would be overruled, when it held that the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed not by Miranda, but by a federal statute enacted two years after that decision. The statute, 18 U.S.C.A. Section 3501, provides that a confession is admissible if voluntarily given. Congress enacted the statute in order to overturn Miranda, the Fourth Circuit said, and Congress had the authority to do so pursuant to its authority to overrule judicially created RULES OF EVIDENCE that are not mandated by the U.S. Constitution. United States. v. Dickerson, 166 F. 3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, the Court said that, whether or not it agreed with Miranda, the principles of STARE DECISIS weigh heavily against overruling it now. While the Court has overruled its precedents when subsequent cases have undermined their doctrinal underpinnings, that has not happened to the Miranda decision, which the Court said "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." Although the Court acknowledged that a few guilty defendants might go free as the result of the application of the Miranda rule, "experience suggests that the totality-of-the-circumstances test which Section 3501 seeks to revive is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers to conform to and for courts to apply in a consistent manner." Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000).

In another decision, the Court actually increased defendants' constitutional rights when it ruled that the protections provided by its decision in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968) (which held that the introduction of a non-testifying codefendant's confession incriminating both himself and the other defendant in a joint trial violated the other defendant's Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine witnesses) were applicable to a codefendant's confession that substituted blanks and the word deleted in place of the defendant's proper name. The Court said that redactions that simply replace the defendant's name with an obvious substitute, such as deleted, a blank space, a symbol, or other similarly obvious indications of alteration, result in statements that so closely resemble the unredacted statements in Bruton that the law must require the same result. The Court believed that juries will often react similarly to unredacted confessions and to poorly redacted confessions, as jurors often realize that a poorly redacted confession refers specifically to the defendant, even when the statement does not expressly link the defendant to the deleted name. Additionally, the Court stressed that by encouraging the jury to speculate about the removed name, the redaction might overemphasize the importance of the confession's accusation once the jurors figure out the redacted reference. Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185, 118 S. Ct. 1151, 140 L. Ed. 2d 294 (1998)

In Martinez v. City of Oxnard, 270 F. 3d 852 (9th Cir. 2001), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that violating a defendant's rights against coerced confessions can give rise to a civil rights action against the police officer who attempted to coerce the confession. Martinez stemmed from a 45-minute emergency-room interrogation of a narcotics suspect who had been shot five times by a police officer while being subdued during the arrest. The suspect, who was rendered blind in one eye and paralyzed below the legs by the gunshot wounds, sued the officer who had conducted the interrogation. The officer interposed a defense of qualified IMMUNITY, claiming that he could not be sued for injuries suffered by the defendant while the officer was simply doing his job.

The district court rejected the officer's defense and granted SUMMARY JUDGMENT to the narcotics suspect on his civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C.A § 1983. In affirming the district court's decision, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a police officer may raise the defense of qualified immunity only when he or she could have reasonably believed that his or her conduct was lawful under settled law. In this case, the record revealed that the officer had doggedly tried to exact a confession from the suspect without first reading him the Miranda warnings, and that he then had proceeded to ignore the suspect's repeated requests for the officer to cease the interrogation until he was finished receiving medical treatment for his life-threatening injuries. No reasonable officer, the court concluded, could have believed that interrogating the suspect under those "extreme circumstances" comported with the Fifth Amendment's prohibitions against coerced confessions, and thus the officer was not entitled to assert qualified immunity as a defense. Accordingly, the district court's grant of summary judgment against the officer was affirmed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the officer's petition for certiorari.

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