The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider how long a criminal suspect's request for counsel during questioning can stand after a Maryland court ruled that years could pass.
The decision will determine the level of protection from interrogation people can expect when under investigation and clear up confusion within lower courts, which have interpreted the law in various ways.
"The courts are split, and that's why the Supreme Court needs to weigh in," said public defender Celia Anderson Davis, who's representing the convicted child molester at the center of the case.
Michael Blaine Shatzer Sr. had recently begun serving a 12-year prison sentence in Hagerstown for sexual abuse when allegations that he had molested a different child surfaced in 2003. During police questioning, he asked for a lawyer, but the investigation was essentially dropped. In 2006, new evidence led to more questioning and an alleged confession from Shatzer, who was charged, tried and convicted.
He appealed on the basis that his statement should be thrown out because he had never been granted an attorney from his earlier request. In August, the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed, with five of seven judges overturning the guilty ruling. Two judges dissented.
"Once a suspect in custody states that they need help from an attorney, then no questioning should take place until they're provided with an attorney" even if nearly three years have passed, Davis said. "Mr. Shatzer asked for help and never received it."
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who plans to argue the case before the high court, said the issue was "ripe for the court's consideration."
"There's been a lot of discussion about what is the length of time permissible here," he said. "After the defendant invokes the right to counsel, is there an expiration date or is it a lifelong invocation?"
The Maryland Court of Appeals judges who ruled in favor of Shatzer expressed concerns about protecting an individual from undue pressure to talk after requesting an attorney. The dissenting judges worried that a limitless, standing request would cause complications for law enforcement officials and possibly dissuade them from "investigating new leads to older crimes."
The Supreme Court judges, who will likely hear arguments in the case later this year, did not explain why they chose to take on the issue.
"Why the case would be of such importance that the court would want to hear it is impossible to know for sure," said Andrew Levy, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and partner in a Baltimore firm. "It's the sort of thing that the court might think happens a lot or would be of interest."