Supreme Court Criminal Case: Police May Reinterrogate a Suspect Two Weeks After He Requests a Lawyer, Even if He Remains in Prison, Lawyerless

This week, the United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Maryland v. Shatzer. The case examined the parameters of the protections afforded by Edwards v. Arizona regarding reinterrogation of a criminal suspect after he has requested counsel. The court held that 1) a break in custody lasting more than two weeks between attempts at interrogation is sufficient to avoid the coercive pressures against which Edwards protected and 2) a return to the general prison population amounts to a break in custody for the purposes of this rule.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court. Justices Thomas and Stevens each concurred in the judgment but disagreed with the 14-day break in custody rule. Justice Thomas would prefer Edwards be limited to “the circumstances present in Edwards itself” whereas Justice Stevens did not find the bright-line rule to provide enough protection against coerced confessions. We agree with Justice Stevens.

The facts of the case involve allegations of sexual child abuse against Mr. Shatzer while he was incarcerated for another offense. In 2003 a detective attempted to interview Mr. Shatzer about sexual abuse of his 3-year-old son, but Mr. Shatzer declined to speak without an attorney. The investigation was closed.

Two and a half years later, another detective was assigned, who interviewed the son (who had somehow aged 5 years in that period) and acquired more details. That detective then interrogated Mr. Shatzer after obtaining a Miranda waiver. Mr. Shatzer had been transferred to another prison, but had been incarcerated for the entire time. Detectives later administered a polygraph exam. Mr. Shatzer failed, then became upset and incriminated himself.

In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia explained the rationale behind Miranda and Edwards, describing the Edwards protections as “not a constitutional mandate, but judicially prescribed prophylaxis.” He explained that in cases following Edwards, the rule had been applied where the suspects had been in continuous custody without a chance to regain “a sense of control or normalcy after they were initially taken into custody.” Due to the diminished benefits and increased costs of extending Edwards, an extension of Edwards without time limits is not justified. Justice Scalia seemed to choose a 14-day bright-line rule arbitrarily, assuming that two weeks is long enough to “shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody.”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Stevens expressed his qualms that “[t]he Court’s analysis today is insufficiently sensitive to the concerns that motivated the Edwards line of cases.” He disagrees with the assertion that Edwards is not a constitutional command because the Fifth Amendment is the source of that protection. He also worries that allowing reinterrogation after only 14 days “disregards the compulsion caused” by a subsequent interrogation of a suspect who has requested a lawyer after being told that one would be provided for him, but have not received counsel. That suspect is likely to feel that the police lied, so he does not really have any right to a lawyer. Justice Stevens suggested a concrete event, such as police providing counsel, rather than or in addition to the time-based rule.

The other issue decided in this case was whether Mr. Shatzer was “in custody” for purposes of the break-in-custody rule. Although he was incarcerated, the Court determined that a return to the general prison population amounts to a “return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine” with “the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation.” The Court also assumes that the prisoner suspect understands that the interrogator has no power to increase or decrease his time served. Because of those circumstances, a return to prison qualified as a break in custody.

We believe Justice Stevens took a more reasonable approach to this issue in his concurring opinion. He recognizes that “[a] prisoner’s freedom is severely limited, and his entire life remains subject to government control,” which is “not conducive to shaking off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody. Nor can a prisoner easily seek advice from an attorney, family members, or friends [as emphasized in the majority opinion,] especially not within 14 days; prisoners are frequently subject to restrictions on communications.” In addition, “[p]risoners are uniquely vulnerable to the officials who control every aspect of their lives; prison guards may not look kindly upon a prisoner who refuses to cooperate with police. And cooperation is frequently relevant to whether the prisoner can obtain parole.”

While Justice Stevens agreed that the 2½ year period between interrogations is a basis for treating the second interrogation as no more coercive than the first, he acknowledged that “[n]either a break in custody nor the passage of time has an inherent, curative power.” We agree. Unfortunately, the majority held otherwise.

The full opinion is available here.