Federal Supreme Court Will Hear Argument on Federal Criminal Constitutional Law, Affecting Law Here in Atlanta, Georgia

One of Justice Sotomayor‘s first decisions on the Supreme Court will be in Maryland v. Shatzer, which is set for argument on October 5, 2009. The Court will decide whether the federal criminal constitutional protections afforded by Edwards v. Arizona in 1981 extend to Shatzer.

prohibits interrogation of a suspect who has requested counsel, unless an attorney is provided. This rule protects suspects from police coercion and serves an administrative purpose of providing judges and law enforcement with a clear and easily enforceable rule. Shatzer requested counsel when he was interrogated in 2003, while he was in prison for a different crime. Counsel was never provided. In 2006, while he was still incarcerated, another officer interrogated him again about the same subject, again without providing a lawyer. That time, Shatzer gave a statement that eventually led to his conviction. The highest appeals court in Maryland found that the Edwards rule applied, reversing his conviction.

The state of Maryland asserts 3 primary points in its briefs to the Supreme Court:
(1) The Edwards rule should not apply where a break in custody occurred;
(2) A break in custody has occurred where a prisoner returns to the general prison population; and
(3) The Edwards rule should not apply when significant time passes.
To argue these points, the State argues that the purposes of the Edwards rule are not met in these situations and that social costs require limitations on the rule. The same arguments are reiterated in amicus curie briefs submitted by the United States, 37 states (not including Georgia,) and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a organization that advocates reducing rights for persons accused of crimes.

Briefs in support of Shatzer seek to protect the bright-line rule established by Edwards, arguing that:
(1) Any custodial reinterrogation is improper until an attorney is provided;
(2) Passage of time and breaks in custody should not render Edwards inapplicable; and (3) Correctional custody qualifies as “custody” for the purpose of the Edwards rule.
Shatzer and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argue that the purposes of Edwards would be undermined by the requested exceptions and that there is no effective alternative to the bright-line rule.

The passage of time does nothing to change a suspect’s belief in his vulnerability to the pressures of custodial interrogation. Additionally, any exceptions regarding time-passage would be arbitrary and erode the bright-line rule imposed by Edwards. A break in custody does no more to change the custodial pressures without the presence of a lawyer. As NACDL’s amicus brief points out, such an exception would only increase those pressures by incentivizing police to badger suspects through repetitive catch-and-release tactics. Arguing that incarceration does not qualify as “custody” for Miranda/Edwards purposes is simply absurd. Under Miranda, (on which the Edwards rule is based,) “a person is in custody if a reasonable person would understand he was under formal arrest or restrained in his freedom of movement.” A person in the general prison population is certainly restrained in his freedom of movement. The pressure to cooperate with authorities to be eligible for parole after a significant passage of time in prison creates even stronger custodial pressures than where the initial interrogation was recent.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears federal appeals here in Atlanta, Georgia, has held that Edwards does not apply where a suspect invoked the right to counsel during an interrogation regarding one offense, was convicted of the offense and incarcerated, then was interrogated regarding a separate offense while still in custody for the first offense. Georgia state criminal law has a similar “break in custody” exception. While this case is distinguishable from such a situation, we hope that the Supreme Court clarifies that incarceration is “custody” within the context of Edwards.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland’s opinion below is available here.
The briefs in this case are available at the following links:
Brief for Petitioner
Brief for Respondent
Reply Brief for Petitioner
Amicus Brief of NACDL
Amicus Brief of United States
Amicus Brief of Florida, et al
Amicus Brief of CJLF

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