April 06, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Corley v. United States

On April 6, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Corley v. United States, No. 07-10441.

The presentment requirement—the modern version of which is contained in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(a)(1)(A)—requires that "[a] person making an arrest within the United States must take the defendant without unnecessary delay before a magistrate judge … " In McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), and Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957), the Court held that the consequence of an unreasonable delay in presentment is the exclusion of any confession obtained after the delay—even if the confession was voluntary.

Roughly 10 years after Mallory, Congress addressed the admissibility of confessions in 18 U.S.C. § 3501, which states in relevant part:

             (a) In any criminal prosecution brought by the United States or by the District of Columbia, a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given.

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(c) In any criminal prosecution by the United States or by the District of Columbia, a confession . . . shall not be inadmissible solely because of delay in bringing such person before a magistrate judge . . . if such confession is found by the trial judge to have been made voluntarily and . . . if such confession was made or given by such person within six hours immediately following his arrest or other detention: Provided, That the time limitation contained in this subsection shall not apply in any case in which the delay in bringing such person before such magistrate judge or other officer beyond such six hour period is found by the trial judge to be reasonable considering the means of transportation and the distance to be traveled to the nearest available such magistrate judge or other officer.

The question presented in Corley was whether subsection (a) of § 3501 makes confessions admissible regardless of any unreasonable delay in presentment, so long as they are voluntary. The Court held that it does not. Reading it that way would render subsection (c) superfluous, wrote the Court. What need would there be for a subsection (c) addressing the consequences of delay if subsection (a) makes delay irrelevant? To the extent a conflict exists between subsection (a), which states that all voluntary confessions are admissible, and subsection (c), which states that some voluntary confessions are not admissible, the specific directive in subsection (c) controls. The legislative history of § 3501 also shows that subsection (a) was directed at the issue of when a confession is voluntary, not the separate issue of delay in presentment. And the consequences of making delay irrelevant would be to strip the presentment requirement of any teeth.

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.

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