Judicial Notebook

Courts have been grappling with confessions most notably since Miranda v. Arizona (384 U.S. 436, 1966) elucidated suspects' rights, holding that custodial interrogations by the police are inherently coercive and require warnings as a safeguard of the suspect's rights. Suspects are now "read their rights" upon arrest, including the right to counsel and the right to remain silent. Since Miranda, courts have ruled on definitions of interrogation, proper assertion of Miranda rights and the custodial nature of different situations.

For example, the Supreme Court in Rhode Island v. Innis (446 U.S. 291, 1980) interpreted interrogation as explicit questioning of the suspect by the police, the functional equivalent of explicit questioning or a statement by the police that is reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating statement. If a suspect asserts his or her right to counsel, the police must cease all interrogation. In Edwards v. Arizona (541 U.S. 477, 1981), the Court determined that the police can only resume questioning a suspect in the presence of the lawyer or if the suspect voluntarily initiates further conversations with the police.

Weighing coerciveness

This term, the Supreme Court will hear a case concerning interrogation, the right to counsel and the circumstances necessary to conclude that a suspect's initiation of interrogation was voluntary (Maryland v. Blake, docket no. 04-373, ruling at 849 A.2d 410). In this case, the suspect was taken into custody, properly read his Miranda rights, and unequivocally asserted his right to counsel. After spending some time in a holding cell, one of the arresting officers presented him with a list of charges, which he was required by law to do. The punishment for each of the charges appeared on the document, including the word "DEATH" next to the first-degree murder charge. The suspect was 17 years old at the time and was not actually eligible for the death penalty for any of the charges. After handing the suspect this document, the officer said, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?"

The appellate court determined that the officer's actions were the functional equivalent of interrogation. His partner then stated, in the presence of the suspect, that they were not permitted to talk to him because he asked for his lawyer. The suspect was left in the cell again for half an hour, after which he talked to the officers and made incriminating statements. The specific question before the Supreme Court is whether it is permissible under Edwards to consider intervening circumstances or police action (e.g., the partner's statement that they were not allowed to talk to him and the half hour the suspect spent in his cell after the presentation of the charging document) in determining if a suspect voluntarily initiated a conversation with the police in which incriminating statements were made, resulting in a reliable and admissible confession.

A need for research

This case raises several psycholegal issues that can be informed by the body of research on confession evidence. Although the age of the suspect was not explicitly made an issue in the case, research indicates younger people have less comprehension of Miranda warnings, increased suggestibility in an interrogation and are more likely to confess than adults. The average person's response to interrogation is more relevant to this case. Specifically, this case raises the issue of what types of police behavior a suspect in custody will view as interrogatory or coercive. Research indicates that people in general are very sensitive to the interrogation techniques used by police. In particular, the use of explicit or implicit threats of punishment is perceived by laypersons as being highly coercive, and the use of this "maximization" technique is perceived as highly likely to result in a confession, whether the suspect is innocent or guilty. From this research, it could be inferred that suspects would have difficulty overcoming this type of pressure and continue asserting their rights.

However, there is no research on what if any techniques later rob a suspect of the ability to voluntarily initiate an interrogation, which is the issue before the Supreme Court. Without research, it is difficult to determine if a suspect's initiation of interrogation was voluntary or what the average suspect would view as a reasonable curative measure. This is one of many legal decisions courts are forced to make without empirical support. Researchers in the area of confession evidence have heralded the need for more research on its powerful impact on the criminal justice system. The issues the Court will tackle in Maryland v. Blake provide fertile ground for such new research directions.

Judicial Notebook is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).