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Supreme Court has chance to do right on Miranda rights

Any red-blooded American kid raised on cop TV shows can complete this sentence: "You have the right to remain … "

Silent — everyone knows that. Then there's the also-important part about your right to a lawyer when cops question you about a crime. Once again, Miranda warnings are front and center before the U.S. Supreme Court, in a small-time case with big-time implications from our own back yard.

Given that this is a question of fundamental fairness decided by the court 43 years ago, we need to get Miranda right.

The question under current Supreme Court contemplation: Did a Miranda warning used by Tampa police make it clear to the suspect, Kevin Powell, that he had the right to a lawyer during questioning — not just beforehand?

Critics say the "you have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" language leaves open to argument whether a suspect has been properly informed of that same right once questions start to fly.

Powell, who signed the Miranda form, confessed to having a 9mm gun — not good when you're already a convicted felon — and got 10 years.

Cynics say bad guys already know these rights chapter and verse, but that's not the point. Justice is (allegedly) blind and (supposed to be) equally applied, to a felon the same as to you and me, should we one day find ourselves (wrongly) accused. Miranda is there to keep the system clean, from genuine mistakes by police to deliberate omissions intended to get a suspect to spill.

Different departments can give the Miranda warnings differently. The Supreme Court has resisted giving a template for police to follow, maybe because justices view their role as different from that of legislators or even officers on the street. But during arguments in the Powell case this week, they sure seemed to be leaning toward providing more specific guidance police could use nationwide. Good. Obviously, we need it.

Now: For those with no use for Miranda, for whom even the fundamental fairness argument holds no water and to whom this is just more mollycoddling of bad guys, consider this:

When police fail to be clear about a suspect's right to remain silent and to have a lawyer — out of sloppiness, faulty department policy or deliberate cutting of corners — a case can be reversed. Charges can be thrown out, bargained down or dropped, if prosecutors have little else, meaning suspects go free or at least do so sooner. Retrials? They are on our dime.

Then there are crime victims or their survivors, and how many times they can endure retrials. A similar question about Miranda rights is pending in a double-murder death penalty horror of a case out of Polk County.

So here's hoping the Supreme Court is of a mind to give guidance and those in the clean-up-crime business are amenable to consistency. Constitutional purists and cynics alike should agree on at least this: getting it right the first time.

Finally, a footnote: Ernesto Miranda, for whom the landmark 1966 case is named, was later retried and convicted even without his problematic confession. The irony: After his release, he was fatally stabbed in a bar, a suspect was read his Miranda rights in English and Spanish, the charge against him was later dropped.

Supreme Court has chance to do right on Miranda rights 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 8:53pm]
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