In a case decided yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously reversed a judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that had freed an inmate in Ohio, on the ground that the introduction at trial of his confession violated Miranda v. Arizona.  The Supreme Court decision in Bobby v. Dixon should prove considerably useful to law enforcement authorities in three ways.

The facts of the case describe a gruesome murder.  Archie Dixon and an accomplice, Tim Hoffner, tied up Chris Hammer, beat him, and “buried him alive, pushing the struggling Hammer down into his grave while they shoveled dirt on top of him,” all for the purpose of stealing his car.  During the ensuing police investigation, Dixon and Hoffner had several contacts with the investigating officers.  The officers unsuccessfully sought to interrogate Dixon on November 4 and twice in fact did interrogate him on November 9.  The officers did not administer Miranda warnings during the November 4 meeting or during the first November 9 interrogation, which resulted in Dixon being taken into custody at 3:30 pm.  By contrast, the officers did administer Dixon Miranda warnings before the second November 9 interrogation, and Dixon waived his rights before being questioned at 7:30 pm.  During the first session Dixon denied any involvement in Hammer’s murder, but Dixon gave up the ghost during the second session.  Dixon admitted to involvement in the murder of Hammer, but tried to pin most of the blame on Hoffner.

The Ohio courts ruled that the admission of that second confession did not violate Miranda, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Oregon v. ElstadElstad concluded that Miranda did not automatically require exclusion of a second confession that was properly preceded by Miranda warnings and a valid waiver, even if an earlier confession was inadmissible under Miranda.  Disagreeing with the Ohio courts, the Sixth Circuit in Dixon held that the second confession followed closely upon the first one, which meant that any error in obtaining Dixon’s first confession infected the second one as well.  The Supreme Court disagreed.  Dixon’s first and second statements were separated by a considerable period of time (four hours) and were not otherwise part and parcel of one continuous interrogation session.  The Court held that, even if the Ohio courts were wrong in their interpretation of Elstad and Miranda (which the Court pointedly refused to decide), the Ohio courts were reasonable in ruling that Dixon’s confession was admissible under Elstad, given the significant break between the two confessions in this case.  Accordingly, the Court held that, as a state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), Dixon had not shown that the Ohio courts’ decision to admit his second confession was obviously wrong.

There are three features of the case worth noting.

First: The Court limited the effect of a 2004 decision excluding confessions under Miranda when a suspect is questioned over time.  In Missouri v. Siebert the police engaged in a planned, two-part interrogation procedure in which a suspect was first interrogated without Miranda warnings, then was left alone for a brief spell, and finally was interrogated again, but this time only after being given Miranda warnings and waiving the rights that Miranda provides.  In that setting, Siebert concluded, the Elstad exception to Miranda does not apply because the two briefly-interrupted stages of the interrogation were essentially one.  Today, the Supreme Court effectively made clear that unless different periods of interrogation form one continuous whole, the use of Miranda warnings at subsequent periods is sufficient to offset the failure to do so at an earlier period of questioning.

Second:  During the police interrogation of Dixon, the officers used what the Supreme Court described as a “common police tactic:  namely, use of the “prisoner’s dilemma” interrogation technique.  The officers advised him that his accomplice Hoffner was supplying them with useful information and that, unless Dixon did so, too, he would be left holding the bag, because they would make a deal with only one suspect, the first one to confess.  Dixon argued that this technique rendered his first confession involuntary, which thereby tainted the second confession, too.  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, saying that it never had found that practice to be unconstitutional.  In fact, the Supreme Court was being modest.  The Court had rejected this “prisoner’s dilemma” argument more than 40 years ago in Frazier v. Cupp.  The prisoner there made the same argument:  namely, that falsely telling him that an accomplice had confessed as a means of encouraging his cooperation rendered his own confession involuntary.  The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Marshall, flatly rejected that claim.  “The fact that the police misrepresented the statements that Rawls had made is, while relevant, insufficient in our view to make this otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible.  These cases must be decided by viewing the ‘totality of the circumstances,’ * * * and on the facts of this case we can find no error in the admission of petitioner’s confession.”  Today’s decision in Dixon reaffirms the Court’s earlier decision in Frazier v. Cupp.

Third:  As noted above, Dixon had had a chance encounter with the police on November 4, during which he refused to answer any questions until he had spoken with a lawyer.  Dixon argued that the officers’ decision five days later to requestion him without a lawyer being present violated Miranda, but the Court disagreed.  The Court ruled that Dixon was not “in custody” during the November 4 encounter, so Dixon’s decision to ask for a lawyer could not have amounted to an invocation of his Miranda rights.  The Court reasoned that a suspect cannot invoke his Miranda rights anticipatorily – that is, before he is “in custody.”  That ruling makes eminent sense.  Otherwise, everyone could send a letter to all law enforcement authorities invoking their Miranda rights as to all potential future interrogations.  That result could effectively outlaw most interrogations of career criminals, especially if they are organized crime figures, and Miranda did not intend to reach that far.