The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday pointedly questioned why police in a Tampa criminal case didn't explicitly tell a suspect of his right to an attorney during an interrogation.
A majority of justices appeared inclined to give law enforcement more guidance about how to inform a suspect of his Miranda rights to end confusion about what is required before questioning. The ruling, expected next year, is eagerly awaited and likely would affect a number of major cases nationwide, including a death penalty case in Florida.
The Florida vs. Powell case involved whether the Tampa Police Department adequately warned Kevin Dewayne Powell of his rights in August 2004.
Authorities arrested Powell, a felon, on a charge of illegally possessing a firearm that he told police he bought for $150 on the street.
Powell signed a Miranda warning that stated in part: "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning. You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview."
The Florida Supreme Court, in its September 2008 ruling, overturned his conviction and 10-year prison sentence because the warning didn't expressly inform Powell that he could have an attorney present during the questioning, as required by the landmark Miranda vs. Arizona ruling in 1966.
The highest court in the land seemed inclined to agree.
"Aren't you supposed to tell this person … you have a right to have the lawyer with you during interrogation?" Justice Stephen Breyer said. "I mean, it isn't as if that was said in passing in Miranda. They wrote eight paragraphs about it. And I just wonder, where does it say in this warning, you have the right to have the lawyer with you during the interrogation?"
Arguing on behalf of Florida, Deputy Attorney General Joe Jacquot said the state's high court "ignored the totality of the warning."
"It took the words 'before answering any of our questions,' turning that into an exclusive statement to say, 'only before questioning,' " he said. "That's the kind of parsing, that's the kind of precise formulation … that this court has rejected."
Justice Sonya Sotomayor pressed Jacquot on the intent behind alternative wording used by police in Tampa, which was later changed.
"The police here could have chosen to be explicit, but instead they chose to obfuscate a little bit and be less explicit," she said. "Shouldn't we assume that that is an intent to deceive or perhaps to confuse?"
"Absolutely not, your honor," Jacquot answered.
Powell's lawyer, Deborah Brueckheimer of Bartow, said the Tampa police warning gave her client the impression that "once questioning starts, that he has no right to consult with a lawyer anymore, and it certainly doesn't tell him that he has the right to the presence of an attorney with him in an interrogation room, where the coercion takes on a highly new meaning."
Justice Antonin Scalia called her argument "angels dancing on the head of a pin."
But two other justices cited conflicting court decisions as a reason to look at clarifying what is required.
The court is expected to issue an opinion in the spring.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.