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Md. criminal defense group seeks Supreme Court review of murder conviction

A group of Maryland criminal defense lawyers has pledged its support for a U.S. Supreme Court review of a Silver Spring man’s murder conviction, saying the justices should hear more criminal appeals from state high courts that raise federal constitution questions.

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association said Rahul Gupta’s claim that police failed to honor his request for a lawyer well in advance of being interrogated provides a “sufficient vehicle” for the justices to consider the scope of law enforcement’s obligation to respect the constitutionally protected right to counsel. The association cited a widespread presumption that the Supreme Court reviews only those state-court cases that present an “ideal vehicle” for resolving a federal constitutional issue.

“As this court has exercised its discretion to take a shrinking number of cases, petitions (for review) have focused more and more on whether a case is an ‘ideal vehicle’ to resolve a division of authority,” attorney Steven M. Klepper wrote on the association’s behalf. “When faced with a division of authority among state supreme courts that warrants review, this court should be more concerned with identifying a sufficient vehicle than with waiting for the elusive ideal vehicle.”

Maryland’s top court upheld Gupta’s conviction in March, saying his request for an attorney while in a holding cell did not need to be honored because he was not facing imminent interrogation by the police. The Court of Appeals also found no fault with an officer’s interruption of Gupta’s subsequent request for counsel, saying he had ample opportunity to shut off the interrogation by again asking for an attorney.

Gupta’s petition for Supreme Court review rests heavily on the justices’ 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona that suspects in custody have and must be advised of their rights to remain silent and to an attorney before they are questioned. However, the Supreme Court later stated in a footnote to its 1991 decision in McNeil v. Wisconsin that it has “never held that a person can invoke his Miranda rights anticipatorily,” as Gupta had done from the holding cell.

In the petition, Gupta’s attorney stated that Miranda’s protections would be meaningless if they could not be invoked – as the Court of Appeals held – when a person is in custody but not yet being questioned.

Such a holding “would require an individual, already on the battlefield, to wait to request legal assistance until the state has placed its arrows in its quivers and pointed them at the suspect,” Dawinder S. “Dave” Sidhu wrote. “The constitutional right of an individual to seek legal counsel should not be construed so narrowly.”

The association, in its friend-of-the-court brief supporting Gupta, stated that the justices have granted review in only 18 criminal appeals from state courts over their past four terms, including five that challenged the death penalty.

“Considering that state convictions are much more numerous than federal convictions, criminal cases from the state courts occupy a disproportionately small portion” of appeals granted for review by the Supreme Court, wrote Klepper, a principal at Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore. “Because the Maryland high court’s majority opinion rested on the conclusion that there was no Miranda violation – without reaching the question of whether any violation was harmless – this case squarely raises important questions for this court’s resolution.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has opted not to respond to Gupta’s petition, enabling the justices to consider it without the state’s opposition. Klepper, however, said in an interview Wednesday he hopes the association’s brief – “at a minimum” – prompts the justices to request a response from the state.

The association was joined in the brief by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, based at New York University School of Law, which seeks to improve the criminal justice system via research, litigation and public-policy formulation.

The Supreme Court has scheduled its consideration of the Gupta’s petition for review for Sept. 25. The case is docketed at as Rahul Gupta v. Maryland, No. 17-12.

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