High court to review bounds of questioning

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is revisiting its landmark 1966 ruling that led to the familiar refrain, "You have the right to remain silent." Justices said Monday they would consider an appeal by a man who claims he was duped into talking to officers.

John J. Fellers' case gives the high court a chance to clarify when officers must recite Miranda rights to suspects they've come to arrest.

Fellers provides an unlikely test case. He wrote his appeal without the help of a lawyer, filing as a "pauper" without having to pay court costs. The Supreme Court receives thousands of such appeals a year, but only rarely agrees to hear one. The justices will likely appoint an attorney to argue Fellers' case next fall.

The Bush administration had urged justices to reject the case.

Fellers was barefoot and sipping a mug of what appeared to be tea when he sat on his couch talking to officers who came to his door in Lincoln, Neb. One officer was familiar to Fellers because they both worked as hospital volunteers. Fellers talked freely about getting into drugs after the breakup of his marriage and business problems.

He had been indicted on drug charges before officers went to his house, but they did not specifically tell him they were there to arrest him. Fellers was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison after being convicted of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine.

University of Texas law professor Susan Klein said the scene in Fellers' den is played out around the country as officers try to elicit a confession from an off-guard suspect.

If Fellers wins, Klein said, "police officers can no longer intentionally circumvent Miranda by questioning first, getting a statement, then saying 'Oh by the way, now that you've spilled the beans, here's your rights."'

If Fellers loses, officers will have more freedom to question suspects without bringing up Miranda, she said.

Fellers maintains that his constitutional rights were violated during the interview at his home and then again when he talked to police at the jail after being advised of his rights.

He said the first questioning tainted the later jailhouse interrogation, during which he confessed.

The officers who went to Fellers' house said they always intended to arrest him on charges, but first wanted to talk to him about his trouble.

"It is clear that once a defendant is indicted, the government may not deliberately elicit information from him without the presence of counsel," Fellers wrote in his appeal.

A decision is expected soon from the Supreme Court in another police questioning case, this one involving the interrogation of a wounded farmworker who was shot repeatedly by police and then subjected to a lengthy interrogation as he awaited medical treatment. The worker was never told of his Miranda right to remain silent, and he says a sergeant kept questioning him even after he said that he did not want to answer.

The question before the court is whether the worker may sue the officer for damages on grounds that his constitutional right against self-incrimination was violated.

The Miranda warning takes its name from the Supreme Court's ruling in a 1966 case involving the use of a confession in the rape prosecution of Ernesto Miranda.

Three years ago the Supreme Court reaffirmed in a 7-2 decision that police must warn the people they arrest of their right to remain silent when questioned. Suspects must be told that anything they say may be used against them, they can remain silent or have a lawyer's help while answering, and that a lawyer will be appointed to help them if they cannot afford to hire one.

Jim Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham University, said there has been confusion among lower courts about when someone is in custody and must be informed of rights.

"The obvious definition is when the bars are surrounding you, or you're in handcuffs," Cohen said.

The case is Fellers v. United States, 02-6320.


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