WASHINGTON -- Saying that Congress has cast aside the Supreme Court's famous "Miranda" decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that federal prosecutors may use confessions made by suspects who were not warned about their rights.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., in a 2-1 ruling Monday in a Maryland man's bank robbery case, upheld a little-known 1968 law that Congress passed explicitly to overrule Miranda vs. Arizona in federal criminal cases.
If a confession is voluntary, as judged one case at a time, the absence of Miranda warnings or flaws in giving those warnings will not bar such an admission as evidence, the court said.
"No longer will criminals who have voluntarily confessed their crimes be released on mere technicalities," the court majority commented.
The decision sets the stage for a potentially historic fight over Congress' power to undo a controversial Supreme Court ruling that added to criminal suspects' rights.
The 1968 law treats the Miranda decision as only a ruling on evidence, not a constitutional mandate, that Congress was free to override.
Agreeing, the appeals court said: "Congress possesses the legislative authority to overrule judicially created rules of evidence and procedure that are not required by the Constitution."
Applying to federal cases in Maryland and four other mid-Atlantic states, the new ruling relied upon a 3-decades-old law that the Justice Department contends is unconstitutional and that the department has refused to use to try to save confessions that would violate the Miranda decision.
If the law is tested in the Supreme Court, Attorney General Janet Reno warned Congress in 1997, the Clinton administration might not defend it even there. The law, she said, should not be used to clear the way for confessions that violate the Miranda rules "unless and until the Supreme Court overrules or modifies that decision."
The Justice Department said it was studying the ruling and would have no comment.
As a result of the decision, a trial can be scheduled in federal court in Alexandria, Va., for Charles T. Dickerson, formerly of Takoma Park but still a Maryland resident, on charges of bank robbery, conspiracy to rob banks, and use of guns in violent crimes. He has been implicated in at least seven bank robberies in Maryland and three in Virginia.
A confession he gave to police before getting Miranda warnings can be used at the trial, because it was voluntary, when judged under the more relaxed provisions of the 1968 law, the appeals court said.
Dickerson's lawyer, James Warren Hundley of Fairfax, Va., said he had just learned of the ruling and had not talked to Dickerson about it.
If there is a challenge to it, he said, the first step would be to ask the full Circuit Court to review the decision of the three-judge panel, rather than go directly to the Supreme Court.
Even though the Miranda decision is technically a ruling that governs only evidence in federal cases, the Supreme Court has regularly applied it to strike down confessions in state cases where there were no warnings. So state and local police generally feel bound by it.
The practical effect of the ruling, if it withstands a likely appeal, would be that federal agents would no longer have to tell suspects, whom they want to question, about the right to remain silent and their right to a lawyer, legal observers said.
Police at all levels of government have grown accustomed to giving Miranda warnings and may continue to do so, those observers said. But, if they leave them out in federal cases, or make a mistake in the timing or content of those warnings, a voluntary confession will not be barred.
"Even after this ruling, we will still have police giving Miranda warnings, but technical slip-ups will not redound to the benefit of the criminal," said Paul D. Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, the conservative legal advocacy group that the appeals court appointed to defend the 1968 law when the Justice Department refused to do so.
"This is a great victory for basic law enforcement and for the safety of the public," Kamenar added.
Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland, said all federal agencies require their investigating officers to give Miranda warnings and will continue to do so. Giving such warnings, she said, "is a good thing. It allows the jury to see the care to which these investigative agents went through to interview somebody."
Stephen A. Saltzburg, a George Washington University professor of criminal law, said the ruling was significant because it means that "Congress could simply say, 'We don't like Miranda, and we don't have to provide a substitute.' " He said the 1968 law uses only vague language to define when a confession is voluntary.
The professor, though, said he agreed with the appeals court that the Miranda decision was not based on the Constitution, even though that ruling was designed to root out forced confessions that would be unconstitutional.
The 5-4 Miranda decision -- one of the most controversial criminal law decisions by the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren -- changed the long-standing rule that any confession would be allowed in court if it could pass a vague standard of having been given voluntarily.
It said that to help ensure confessions were not coerced, police would have to warn a suspect -- before any questioning -- about their right not to say anything and to have a lawyer during questioning.
During the Reagan administration, the Justice Department looked for a test case in which it could ask the Supreme Court to overrule Miranda. No such case arose.
But years earlier -- just two years after the Miranda decision -- Congress had decided on its own to try to scuttle the Miranda decision, at least as it applied in federal criminal cases. The 1968 law says a warning about rights is one factor courts can consider in deciding whether a confession was voluntary, but a failure to warn was not decisive.
The appeals court sharply criticized the Justice Department for its years-long refusal to rely upon the law to salvage voluntary confessions that would violate Miranda. It said the Justice Department "has affirmatively impeded enforcement" of the 1968 law.
And it noted that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in an opinion in a 1994 case, had argued that the Justice Department position "may have produced the acquittal and the non-prosecution of many dangerous felons, enabling them to continue their depredations upon our citizens."
The appeals court cited cases in which some federal prosecutors tried to apply the 1968 law to save a confession that would have violated Miranda, only to be overturned by higher Justice Department officials.
When the department repeated that tactic in the Dickerson case, the appeals court chose the Washington Legal Foundation and another group, the Safe Streets Coalition, to defend the law and thus to salvage Dickerson's confession.
While several comments in Warren's opinion in the Miranda case suggest that the warnings were designed to protect constitutional rights, the appeals court said, the high court never said the warnings themselves were a constitutional right.
Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.
Confessions: changing rules
Confessions by suspects could be used as evidence in federal courts if they were given voluntarily. That was judged one case at a time.
1966 Miranda vs. Arizona:
The 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court abandoned the case-by-case approach; any confession given by a suspect in police custody is presumed to be involuntary unless the suspect is warned of the right to silence and the right to have a lawyer on hand during questioning.
In the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, Congress moved to overrule that decision. It said confessions could be admitted, on a case-by-case basis, if they were given voluntarily, taking into account all the circumstances of the questioning. Failure to give Miranda warnings did not rule out evidence.
Appeals court ruling upholds the 1968 act and rules that it displaces the Miranda requirement in federal courts. Thus, confessions in federal cases are now to be judged, case by case, on whether they were given voluntarily. The ruling applies to federal cases in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North and South Carolina.
EMILY HOLMES: SUN STAFF
Pub Date: 2/10/99