May 26, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Montejo v. Louisiana

On May 26, the Supreme Court decided Montejo v. Louisiana, No. 07-1529.

In Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), the Supreme Court held that, once a criminal defendant has requested counsel at an arraignment or similar proceeding, the police are forbidden to initiate any interrogation of the defendant. This case involved an attempted invocation of that rule.

Montejo was arrested in connection with a robbery and murder, waived his right to counsel under Miranda, and eventually admitted that he had shot and killed the victim. He was then arraigned, and counsel was appointed for him. After the arraignment, but before he first met with his lawyer, he was again advised of his Miranda rights, and he then agreed to go with the police to try to locate the murder weapon. During this expedition, he wrote an inculpatory letter apologizing to the victim's widow. At trial, the letter was received in evidence over defense objections based on Jackson, and Montejo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held that Jackson did not require suppression of the letter because he had never affirmatively requested counsel; rather, he had said nothing at the arraignment, and counsel had been appointed automatically.

The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings. It first held that the state court's attempted limitation of Jackson, based on a supposed distinction between a defendant's affirmative "assertion" of his or her right to counsel and the appointment of counsel without a request, either would be unworkable in practice or would result in arbitrarily different results depending on whether state law requires counsel to be requested before one will be appointed. Instead, the Court decided to abandon the Jackson rule entirely. It suggested that the rule had originally been intended to protect defendants against being badgered into waiving their previously asserted right to the assistance of counsel at all "critical" stages of criminal proceedings, and that there was no basis for extending it, as Montejo argued here, to preclude all waivers of those rights whether or not they had been improperly obtained. The Court noted that other decisions provide ample protection against badgering defendants to waive their rights, and principles of stare decisis do not require retention of Jackson. The case was remanded to state court to give Montejo the opportunity to argue for exclusion of the inculpatory letter based on the other decisions that, according to the Court, made Jackson superfluous.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Alito also filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Kennedy joined. Justice Stevens (who was the author of the Jackson decision) filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter and Ginsburg joined and Justice Breyer joined in substantial part. Justice Breyer also filed a separate dissenting opinion.

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