Acase argued this week before the U.S. Supreme Court asks whether Tampa police sufficiently advised Kevin Dewayne Powell of his rights upon arrest on a charge of illegally possessing a firearm.
At issue are the ubiquitous Miranda warnings that typically begin on television police shows with: "You have the right to remain silent …" But if the court agrees with the state of Florida, those warnings could become vague and less informative. That would not serve justice.
Miranda warnings date to 1966, when the Supreme Court in Miranda vs. Arizona established that, to protect against overzealous police methods, suspects under arrest must be reminded they retain some constitutional rights. In those highly intimidating moments when a suspect is taken into custody, he must be told that he has a right to have an attorney present before and during questioning and to not incriminate himself. The warnings have undoubtedly served to inject some balance of power in a coercive situation.
Powell signed a Miranda form that said he had a right to talk with an attorney "before answering" any questions. The form did not say that his rights included having an attorney present during questioning. Powell, a convicted felon, confessed to purchasing a 9mm gun for $150 and was sentenced to 10 years. The Florida Supreme Court found the warnings faulty last year and set the conviction aside. The state appealed.
While Powell's crime was not particularly serious, his case is consequential. Law enforcement agencies around the country will be guided by the ruling and it could directly impact other cases in Florida, including a death penalty case.
It is hard to predict how the Supreme Court will rule based on oral arguments, but the court's ideological lines were obvious. Some of the court's more liberal justices worried aloud that the Tampa warnings didn't clearly inform a suspect of all his rights. Some justices on the court's conservative side indicated that such clarity was not required at the time Miranda was decided.
New Justice Sonya Sotomayor suggested potentially impure motives for the imprecision: "The police here could have chosen to be explicit, but instead they chose to obfuscate. … Shouldn't we assume that that is an intent to deceive or perhaps to confuse?"
This concern is an important one. A court brief filed by University of San Francisco law professor Richard Leo, an expert on Miranda law, describes lingering hostility toward Miranda warnings and research findings that many police agencies train their officers in ways to get suspects to forfeit their Miranda rights.
Whatever the motives of the Tampa police, the Miranda warnings given to Powell were incomplete. To allow this lack of precision would only encourage other law enforcement agencies, particularly those that find Miranda a nuisance or barrier to police work, to similarly obscure the wording. The Florida Supreme Court's ruling should be affirmed.