Monday, January 10, 2005

Missouri v. Seibert

Missouri v. Seibert, 124 S. Ct. 2601 (2004): Miranda: Belated Miranda warnings do not cure involuntary confession

Players: Plurality: Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Kennedy concurs in the judgment (potentially important!)

Facts: Defendant-mother was afraid she’d be prosecuted for neglect when her cerebral-palsy son died covered in bedsores. 124 S.Ct. at 2605. She conspired to destroy her son’s body by setting fire to a mobile home. Id. To make the fire look more plausible, the conspirators also left a mentally-ill teenager in the mobile home with the body, who was then burned alive. Id. at 2606.

The police questioned the defendant for thirty minutes and intentionally withheld Miranda warnings. Id. She confessed to leaving the mentally-ill teenager in the home, whom she knew would die in his sleep. Id. The cops then Mirandized the defendant, and got her to repeat the confession. Id. The trial court suppressed the first confession, but admitted the second, post-Miranda statement. The question-first, Mirandize later approach was a deliberate tactic employed by the police. Id.

Issue(s): "This case tests a police protocol for custodial interrogation that calls for giving no warnings of the rights to silence and counsel until interrogation has produced a confession. Although such a statement is generally inadmissible, since taken in violation of Miranda . . . the interrogating officer follows it with Miranda warnings and then leads the suspect to cover the same ground a second time. The question here is the admissibility of the repeated statement." Id. at 2605 (citation omitted).

Held: "Because this midstream recitation of warnings after interrogation and unwarned confession could not effectively comply with Miranda’s constitutional requirement, we hold that a statement repeated after a warning in such circumstances is inadmissible." Id.

Of Note: The plurality opinion struggles to distinguish the Court’s earlier decision in Oregon v. Elstad. See id. at 2611-12. The plurality test in Siebert focuses on "a series of relevant facts that bear on whether Miranda warnings delivered midstream could be effective enough to accomplish their object: the completeness and detail of the questions and answers in the first round of interrogation, the overlapping content of the two statements, the timing and setting of the first and the second, the continuity of police personnel, and the degree to which the interrogator’s questions treated the second round as continuous with the first." Id. at 2612. "[T]he focus is on facts apart from intent that show the question-first tactic at work." Id. at 2613 & n.6.

How to Use: The plurality decision points out that this practice is much more common than one would think – it has been litigated heavily in California, and is in national law-enforcement training manuals. See id. at 2609 & n.2. The Seibert rule requires that we carefully question our clients; if one simply asks a client, "were you Mirandized" it is easy to miss the "question-first" tactic.

Note that the cop actually admitted his strategy in Siebert – an admission unlikely to be repeated. Fortunately, all opinions and the dissent emphasize that this is not a subjective test that depends on the motive of the officer.

For Further Reading: There is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story in the Seibert case, on the advocacy of Professor Charles Weisselberg of Boalt School of Law and his federal practice clinic. See here. The Professor’s and his students’ work is reflected in the reasoning of the Siebert opinion. Id.


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