WASHINGTON -- Shoring up the 27-year-old right of criminal suspects not to answer police questions, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that federal courts must continue to hear claims that police failed to give "Miranda warnings."
The court rejected a plea by Michigan officials to deny state inmates any chance to go to the federal courthouse with Miranda complaints if they had already aired the claim in state court and failed.
In a separate decision, the court ruled that railroads may not be sued for damages in state court when deaths or injuries result from trains running too fast through built-up areas in cities or towns. Damage claims may go ahead, though, over faulty warning signs at street or highway crossings, the court declared.
The court's new Miranda ruling was one of the most important it has made in a right-to-silence case since police were first ordered to tell suspects of their rights before they are questioned. Miranda warnings have become so common that even arrests made in TV police dramas routinely include them.
That duty was first imposed on police in 1966 in the famous case of Miranda vs. Arizona. A suspect being held by police must be told, before questioning starts, that the individual may choose to say nothing and may have a lawyer on hand, and must be warned that anything said could be used as criminal evidence.
The original Miranda ruling, itself a 5-4 decision, was one of the most controversial criminal law decisions to emerge from the liberal-dominated court headed by the late Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Justice Byron R. White, the last of the four original Miranda dissenters still on the court, cast a decisive vote yesterday to form the narrow majority that assured continued protection of Miranda rights by federal courts. Justice White, the only member of the "Warren Court" still serving, will retire at the end of the current term.
Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, said the warnings to suspects "safeguard a fundamental right" that individuals enjoy under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution -- that is, the right not to be forced to give evidence against themselves.
Moreover, he wrote, the warnings help assure that police questioning at the station house does not produce unreliable confessions.
Noting that the Miranda warnings rule "came down 27 years ago," Justice Souter said that "there is little reason to believe that police today are unable, or even generally unwilling, to satisfy Miranda's requirements."
Joining him in the majority, besides Justice White, were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy and John Paul Stevens. Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The ruling upheld a federal appeals court decision in 1991 that police in Romulus, Mich., violated the rights of Robert Allen Williams Jr. when they failed to give him Miranda warnings before questioning him about a double murder. Mr. Williams now will get a new trial.
The separate new decision that limited the right to sue in state court when injuries or death occur at street or highway crossings of railroad tracks was based on a 1970 U.S. law on rail safety that was passed after a task force had studied grade crossing accidents.
At issue before the court was whether the federal government has sole control over safety rules at grade crossings. By a vote of 7-2, the court ruled that federal rules setting speed limits on railroad trains are to be the only controls on train speeds, and thus no claim based on state law that a train went too fast through town may be pursued.
But by a unanimous vote, the court said that federal rules on rail safety do not displace any obligation railroads may have under state law to put up warning signs or signals at grade crossings.
The decision arose out of a lawsuit in federal court in Georgia by Lizzie Beatrice Easterwood, whose husband, Thomas, was killed in 1988 when a CSX Transportation Inc. train hit his truck as it crossed the tracks in Cartersville, Ga.
Ms. Easterwood's suit may now go ahead with the claim that warning signs at the crossing were inadequate. Her claim based on the train's speed is blocked.