February 24, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Maryland v. Shatzer

On February 24, the Supreme Court decided Maryland v. Shatzer, No. 08-680, holding that the rule of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), which presumes that a waiver of Miranda rights by a suspect who previously asserted those rights but remains in custody is involuntary, no longer applies once the suspect has been released from interrogative custody for at least 14 days.

Shatzer was a convicted prisoner in the Maryland prison system. In 2003, a police detective tried to question him about allegations that he had sexually abused his son. Shatzer asserted his Miranda right to have counsel present during the questioning, the interview was terminated, and he was returned to the general prison population. Two and a half years later, while Shatzer was still in prison, another detective attempted to question him on the same allegations. This time Shatzer waived his right to counsel and made incriminating statements. At his trial for sexual child abuse, the trial court refused to suppress those statements, reasoning that the long break in interrogation-related custody made the Edwards rule inapplicable, and Shatzer was convicted. The Maryland Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the mere passage of time did not end the protection afforded by Edwards and that, even if it did, Shatzer had remained in custody during the entire time because of his continued imprisonment.

The Supreme Court reversed. Edwards established a presumption that, once a suspect invokes the right to counsel under Miranda, any subsequent waiver of that right while the suspect remains in interrogative custody results from the coercive effect of continued custody and therefore is involuntary. This is a Court-made prophylactic rule to protect the constitutional right against self-incrimination, but the rule is not itself constitutionally compelled, and the Court therefore has the authority to limit it to circumstances that support the presumption of continued coercion. There is little reason to presume coercion where the suspect has not been in interrogative custody between the original assertion and the later waiver of Miranda rights, but has returned to his or her normal life for a sufficient period to eliminate the coercive effect of the original detention. The Court concluded, as a refinement of its original prophylactic rule in Edwards, that a 14-day break in interrogative custody "provides plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel, and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody." The Court noted that a suspect still can attempt to prove that a waiver of rights in connection with subsequent interrogation was in fact involuntary, even if the Edwards presumption no longer applies.

The Court also held that Shatzer had enjoyed the benefits of a break in custody for this purpose despite his continued incarceration as a convicted felon. It reasoned that prisoners' return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine, albeit a routine that is limited by the conditions of incarceration, allows them to "regain the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation" and frees them from the special coercive effects of interrogative custody.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor joined, and Justice Thomas joined in part. Justice Thomas also filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment, as did Justice Stevens.

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