Divided Supreme Court Protects Federal Criminal Rule

Last Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Corley v. United States. The issue in this case was whether a federal statute was intended to do away with the McNabb-Mallory exclusionary rule regarding criminal confessions or merely narrow it. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court held that Congress meant to limit, not eliminate, this important protection against secret detention and government overreaching in federal criminal law.

The McNabb-Mallory exclusionary rule was established as a means of enforcing the presentment rule, which requires officers to bring prisoners before a judge as soon as reasonably possible to prevent secret detention and inform the suspect of his rights and the charges against him. The Court in Corley cited evidence that the pressure involved in police interrogation “can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.” The presentment rule protects innocent people from being pressured into false confessions. The McNabb-Mallory exclusionary rule enforces the presentment rule by prohibiting the government from using confessions that were obtained in violation of the presentment rule.

In 1968, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. ยง 3501 in response to Miranda (which requires police to inform suspects of their rights) and Mallory (which held that a confession given seven hours after arrest was inadmissible for unnecessary delay in presentment). The first two sections were intended to eliminate Miranda altogether, but the Court rejected the attempt in 2000 in Dickerson v. United States. The Government argued that the statute was intended to eliminate Mallory, as well, but the Court held that the Congress meant only to limit its application. The third section of the statute provides that in any federal prosecution a confession made by a defendant, while under arrest, is not inadmissible solely because of delay in bringing such person before a magistrate judge if the confession was made within six hours of arrest. The six-hour time limit is extended where further delay is reasonable considering transportation and distance to the nearest magistrate.

The Court said that the Government’s reading of the statute to require only that the confession be made voluntarily would render the third section “nonsensical and superfluous.” The opinion also provided examples of the absurdities that would follow from the Government’s literal reading of the statute and reviewed the legislative history of the statute. Finally, the Court explained that the presentment rule was “one of the most important protections against unlawful arrest” under the common law and still matters in “very practical ways.” To leave it without any means of enforcement would allow federal agents to freely “question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to.”

Here at Kish & Lietz, we have handled cases in which our clients made confessions and told us they did so only because they were pressured and had no attorney with them. According to the Innocence Project, in about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, false confessions, or pled guilty, not because of actual guilt, but due to external sources. The McNabb-Mallory exclusionary rule is an essential protection for all of us.

The entire Corley opinion is available here.