Monday, July 05, 2004

Missouri v. Seibert

Missouri v. Seibert-U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court held on June 28, 2004 that a midstream recitation of Miranda warnings after a suspect has given an unwarned confession, does not effectively comply with Miranda's Constitutional requirement and thus the statement repeated after a warning in such circumstances is inadmissible.

Respondent Seibert feared charges of neglect when her son, afflicted with cerebral palsy, died in his sleep. She was present when two of her sons and their friends discussed burning her family's mobile home to conceal the circumstances of her son's death. Donald, an unrelated mentally ill 18-year-old living with the family, was left to die in the fire, in order to avoid the appearance that Seibert's son had been unattended. Five days later, the police arrested Seibert, but did not read her her rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436. At the police station, Officer Hanrahan questioned her for 30 to 40 minutes, obtaining a confession that the plan was for Donald to die in the fire. He then gave her a 20-minute break, returned to give her Miranda warnings, and obtained a signed waiver. He resumed questioning, confronting Seibert with her prewarning statements and getting her to repeat the information. Seibert moved to suppress both her prewarning and postwarning statements. Hanrahan testified that he made a conscious decision to withhold Miranda warnings, question first, then give the warnings, and then repeat the question until he got the answer previously given.

The District Court suppressed the prewarning statement but admitted the postwarning one, and Seibert was convicted of second-degree murder. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the case indistinguishable from Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, in which this Court held that a suspect's unwarned inculpatory statement made during a brief exchange at his house did not make a later, fully warned inculpatory statement inadmissible. In reversing, the State Supreme Court held that, because the interrogation was nearly continuous, the second statement, which was clearly the product of the invalid first statement, should be suppressed; and distinguished Elstad on the ground that the warnings had not intentionally been withheld there.

Notes from the case:

Failure to give Miranda warnings and obtain a waiver of rights before custodial questioning generally requires exclusion of any statements obtained. Conversely, giving the warnings and getting a waiver generally produces a virtual ticket of admissibility, with most litigation over voluntariness ending with valid waiver finding. This common consequence would not be at all common unless Miranda warnings were customarily given under circumstances that reasonably suggest a real choice between talking and not talking. Pp. 4-6.

Elstad does not authorize admission of a confession repeated under the question-first strategy. The contrast between Elstad and this case reveals relevant facts bearing on whether midstream Miranda warnings could be effective to accomplish their object: the completeness and detail of the questions and answers to the first round of questioning, the two statements' overlapping content, the timing and setting of the first and second rounds, the continuity of police personnel, and the degree to which the interrogator's questions treated the second round as continuous with the first. In Elstad, the station house questioning could sensibly be seen as a distinct experience from a short conversation at home, and thus the Miranda warnings could have made sense as presenting a genuine choice whether to follow up on the earlier admission. Here, however, the unwarned interrogation was conducted in the station house, and the questioning was systematic, exhaustive, and managed with psychological skill. The warned phase proceeded after only a 15-to-20 minute pause, in the same place and with the same officer, who did not advise Seibert that her prior statement could not be used against her. These circumstances challenge the comprehensibility and efficacy of the Miranda warnings to the point that a reasonable person in the suspect's shoes could not have understood them to convey a message that she retained a choice about continuing to talk. Pp. 12-15.

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