ANNAPOLIS – Two weeks.
That’s the shelf-life of a criminal suspect’s request for a lawyer, under a ruling Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court unanimously reinstated Michael Blaine Shatzer Sr.’s child sexual abuse conviction, finding that Hagerstown detectives did not violate his Miranda rights by questioning him two years and seven months after he invoked his right to counsel.
Over the objection of two justices, the court said police need wait only 14 days before reinterrogating a suspect who is released from custody after invoking his right to counsel. That reinterrogation must start with a new notification of the defendant’s right to have an attorney present, the court added.
The Supreme Court said it did not take lightly the unusual step of setting a time frame not specifically stated in the Constitution or federal statute but believed it necessary to give law enforcement agencies specific guidance.
“[L]aw enforcement officers need to know, with certainty and beforehand, when renewed interrogation is lawful,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who successfully argued the case at the high court, hailed the decision.
“It took into consideration the realities of police questioning and police conduct,” Gansler said. The 14-day waiting period ensures no “insidious or bad-faith conduct by the police,” he added.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas wrote separate opinions concurring in the judgment but objecting to the 14-day limit.
Thomas called the time limit arbitrary, favoring a case-by-case approach, while Stevens said two weeks would not be enough to remove the possibility that police are badgering the defendant with a renewed interrogation.
“When police tell an indigent suspect that he has the right to an attorney, that he is not required to speak without an attorney present, and that an attorney will be provided to him at no cost before questioning, the police have made a significant promise,” Stevens wrote. “If they cease questioning and then reinterrogate the suspect 14 days later without providing him with a lawyer, the suspect is likely to feel that the police lied to him and that he really does not have any right to a lawyer.”
Shatzer was in prison for another offense when he was first questioned about molesting his son, then 3, in 2003. He invoked his right to have an attorney present. The questioning ceased, and Shatzer was allowed to return to his cell.
After the boy turned 6 and provided additional information, the police again approached Shatzer, who was still in prison. That time, he waived his Miranda rights and confessed to certain acts.
Shatzer was convicted in Washington County Circuit Court in 2006 and given a 15-year prison sentence, with 10 years suspended.
He challenged his conviction on the ground that the confession was inadmissible.
In 2008, Maryland’s highest court agreed. The Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court had set no time limit when it decided, in 1981’s Edwards v. Arizona, that police cannot continue to question a suspect who has requested counsel.
The Supreme Court rectified that omission on Wednesday.
“The protections offered by Miranda, which we have deemed sufficient to ensure that the police respect the suspect’s desire to have an attorney present the first time police interrogate him, adequately ensure that result when a suspect who initially requested counsel is reinterrogated after a break in custody that is of sufficient duration to dissipate its coercive effects,” Scalia wrote.
“It seems to us that period is 14 days,” he added. “Confessions obtained after a two-week break in custody and a waiver of Miranda rights are most unlikely to be compelled, and hence are unreasonably excluded.”
Assistant Public Defender Celia Anderson Davis, who represented Shatzer before the justices, said she accepts the court’s decision, though she argued that the right to counsel, once invoked by a suspect, must be honored by the police regardless of time.
“The court established a new rule of law,” Davis added. “That was the court’s choice.”
The Supreme Court also held that, for purposes of Shatzer’s Miranda rights, his release from the interrogation room into the general prison population was the equivalent of a break in “custody.”
The case is Maryland v. Shatzer, 08-680.