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Supreme Court Engages in 'Talmudic Parsing' of Miranda Rights

It is somewhat hard to believe that 43 years after Miranda v. Arizona, the requirements for providing suspects with their legal rights could still be murky. Indeed, by now, grade-school kids can probably recite most of the now-famous "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law..." speech.

But the Supreme Court appears to consider the requirements for effective Miranda warnings unclear, and it heard oral argument on Monday in Florida v. Powell. According to the case, the police read Powell his Miranda rights straight from a standardized form they use:

You have the right to remain silent. If you give up this right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning. You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview.

Powell, however, argued that these warnings failed to advise him of one crucial thing: his right to have a lawyer with him throughout the entire time that any questioning was being done by law enforcement officers, not just “before answering questions.”  As discussed in this post on The Briefcase blog, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with Powell, holding that the right to have an attorney present existed “at any time you want during” questioning. This right, however, was not stated on the standardized form used in the Florida jurisdiction in question, one of only a handful in Florida that failed to include it. The Briefcase writes that Monday's oral argument before the Supreme Court "resulted in a parsing of the Miranda decision on a scale usually observed in rabbinical debates about the Talmud." 

The SCOTUSblog also has a detailed account of the argument. The Florida attorney general's office reportedly argued that its Supreme Court had improperly used a “hypertechnical analysis of the warning’s language.” The Solicitor General's office joined with Florida, arguing that no particular form of warnings was constitutionally required. SCOTUSblog says that Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed to disagree, however, reciting from the Miranda decision that the lawyer must be “with him during interrogation.” Opting for a Catholic metaphor, Justice Scalia likened Powell's argument to debates over the number of "angels dancing on the head of a pin.” Scalia stated that it was “quite fantastic” for Powell to argue that "if I knew that I could have an attorney present during the interview, well, that would have been a different kettle of fish and I would never have confessed."

You can read a transcript of the entire oral argument in Florida v. Powell here

Posted by Bruce Carton on December 9, 2009 at 02:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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