The Supreme Court told police Monday not to try to wrest confessions from criminal suspects facing formal charges without telling them they have a right to see a lawyer.
Justices ruled unanimously that officers who want information from indicted people must be upfront in telling them of their legal rights, a victory for a Nebraska man who said he was tricked into talking to officers who came to his house to arrest him on drug charges.
"There was some fuzziness in the law about precisely what police officers could and could not do," said Washington lawyer Seth Waxman, appointed by the court to represent the drug defendant. "I don't think it will be difficult at all for responsible officers to comply with this."
When officers came to his home in Lincoln, Neb., four years ago, John Fellers sat on his couch and talked freely about getting into drugs after the breakup of his marriage and business problems. After he was taken to jail, he was advised of his Miranda rights that begin with the familiar refrain: "You have the right to remain silent."
That was too late, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the 9-0 court.
She said that under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment, Fellers was entitled to know he could see an attorney. Had he waived that right, she wrote, he still could have confessed without a lawyer present.
Fellers was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison after being convicted of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine. He fought the conviction, even serving as his own attorney in appealing to the Supreme Court.
Monday's decision was the first of four rulings expected from the Supreme Court this year to clarify the court's landmark 1966 Miranda vs. Arizona ruling.
On Monday, the Supreme Court also:
Turned down an appeal from former Mafia hit man and mob turncoat Sammy the Bull, who wanted to reclaim more than $380,000 in royalties from a book about his life.
Rejected a claim that Max Factor cosmetics heir Andrew Luster had been unfairly deprived of his rights to appeal his rape convictions in California courts.
Asked for the Bush administration's views on the practice of drugmakers paying generic companies that keep cheaper products off the market during patent disputes, in the appeal of an antitrust ruling against Aventis Pharmaceuticals and generic drug company Andrx Pharmaceuticals.