WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opened federal courts yesterday to a new round of pleas by state prison inmates that their confessions should have been thrown out because police had failed to warn them of their rights.
In a decision likely to put pressure on police to give "Miranda warnings" to more suspects before questioning, the court gave an Alaska man another chance to challenge his confession to murdering his wife.
A federal judge must decide independently -- not bound by what state courts decided -- whether a suspect was held by police in circumstances that required warnings about the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer.
Such warnings are required by the Supreme Court's 1966 ruling in Miranda vs. Arizona -- but only if police have a suspect "in custody." A person is not considered in custody if he or she would feel free to leave at any time.
If someone meets with police but is not in custody, in a legal sense, the officers may ask any questions they wish without having to give Miranda warnings first. Any resulting confession is legal.
Maryland and 36 other states had urged the Supreme Court to rule in the Alaska case that state courts' rulings against suspects' claims they had been in custody should not be second-guessed later by a federal judge, if the inmate pursues a federal constitutional challenge to the conviction.
Reopening Miranda issues in federal court, those states' attorneys general argued, forces states to spend "scarce resources" to defend state court rulings and creates "needless friction" between state and federal courts.
Rebuffing those arguments, the court ruled 7-2 that the custody issue deserves a fresh review when an inmate raises it in federal court in a "habeas corpus" case.
The key factor in the custody question, the court said in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is whether someone who was at a police station for questioning understood that he or she could leave or cut off questioning.
To decide that question, the court said, a judge must weigh whether police actions at the station had created a situation requiring Miranda warnings. That is largely a matter, Justice Ginsburg said, that a federal court would be as capable of resolving as a state court would.
In the Alaska case, state troopers gave no warnings to Carl Thompson of Fairbanks before they questioned him about any role he might have had in the stabbing death of his wife, Dixie.
After Mrs. Thompson's body had been found by moose hunters near Fairbanks, state police put out a news release seeking help in identifying the woman. The statement included a description of a tattoo on the dead woman's body.
In response, Thompson called police and said his wife had such a tattoo. He was asked to meet with police, and did so. During questioning, the troopers told Thompson that they had evidence RTC he had killed his wife. He confessed.
The confession was used against him, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After his challenges to the conviction failed in state court, he went to federal court, claiming he had been entitled to receive Miranda warnings before questioning.
Lower federal courts said they were largely bound by state court rulings against Thompson on that point. That is the result the Supreme Court overturned.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said state courts were in a better position than federal judges to weigh circumstances of police custody.
In a separate case, the court held a hearing on a Michigan woman's constitutional challenge to police seizure and sale of the family car after her husband had used it to pick up a prostitute.
The lawyer for the woman, Tina B. Bennis, drew expressions of sympathy from the justices for the argument that she had been completely innocent of wrongdoing and that thus her share of the property was taken wrongly.