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Some voluntary confessions still out

Rehabilitating one of the more controversial criminal law rulings of the “Warren Court,” a decision that decades ago stirred angry complaints from “tough-on-crime” politicians, a divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday that some confessions to a federal crime cannot be used even if they were given voluntarily.  If federal agents waited too long to take a suspect to court to be told formally of the charges against him, the confession is barred however voluntary it may have been, the Court ruled 5-4 in a bank robbery case, Corley v. U.S. (07-10441).

A Court that has completely changed in membership since 1957 gave new life to their predecessors’ decision that year in Mallory v. U.S., a ruling intended to do away with secret interrogation that produced confessions to crime.  Just as the modern Court in 2000 spared another “Warren Court” precedent, Miranda v. Arizona, from a congressional assault mounted years earlier, the majority on Monday did the same for Mallory.

On June 24, 1957, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for a unanimous Court in Mallory that a confession given seven hours after an individual had been arrested for a federal crime could not be used if there had been “unnecessary delay” in presenting the suspect to a magistrate to learn of the charge.  The decision reinforced a 1943 decision in McNabb v. U.S., essentially to the same effect (and also written by Justice Frankfurter).  Neither ruling was based on the Constitution, but rather on the Court’s supervisory power; Mallory was also based on a rule of criminal procedure for federal courts.

Congressional resentment rose promptly after the Mallory ruling, but reached a boiling point after the Court, in the Miranda decision in 1966, required that suspects be warned about their rights before police could question them about a crime.  Miranda was a particular focus of conservative Republican senators in 1968, bistut Mallory came in for blistering criticism too. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Justice Abe Fortas’ nomination to be Chief Justice, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina thundered: “Mallory! Mallory! I want that word to ring in your ears.  He raped a woman and confessed it in court and the Supreme Court turned him loose on a technicality — free to commit other crimes!”

The upshot was enactment of a 1968 federal law, seeking to overrule Miranda but also, in separate sections, to put Mallory in doubt by saying  voluntary confessions were to be admitted in most circumstances.  (The Supreme Court scuttled the Miranda part of that law in Dickerson v. U.S. nine years ago, by placing Miranda on a constitutional footing beyond Congress’ reach.)

In recent years, a conflict has deepened among federal courts on how far Congress meant to go in 1968 toward scuttling Mallory. The Corley decision Monday resolved that dispute.  Congress did not intend, Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority, to “discard” Mallory, but “merely to narrow” it.  Thus, voluntary confessions to federal crimes still are not to be admitted, if the suspect had not been taken to court fairly soon after confessing to officers. In general, that means the trip to court must come within six hours after an arrest.

“In a world without McNabb-Mallory, federal agents would be free to question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to,” Justice Souter wrote. “No one with any smattering of the history of 20th Century dictatorships needs a lecture on the subject…and there is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.”

Souter added: “Justice Frankfurter’s point in McNabb is as fresh as ever: ‘The history of liberty has largely been the history of observance of procedural safeguards.’…McNabb-Mallory is one of them, and neither the text nor the history of [the 1968 law] makes out a case that Congress meant to do away with it.”

The  1968 law provides that a confession to a federal crime is to be admitted if a judge finds it was voluntarily given; it says that such a confession is not to be admitted “solely because of delay” in taking the suspect before a federal magistrate judge — provided that the voluntary confession had been made within six hours of arrest.  Five Circuit Courts have ruled that the law makes voluntariness the sole test of admissibility.  Three others have ruled that confessions made more than six hours after arrest are barred, if the delay was unreasonable in violation of federal criminal Rule 5.  That was the split at issue in the Corley case.

That case involved a Pennsylvanian, Johnnie Corley, who was convicted of conspiracy to armed bank robbery and armed bank robbery.  He was sentenced to 170 months in prison.  The Third Circuit Court upheld his conviction, rejecting Corley’s challenge to the admission of verbal and written confessions he had given to federal agents.  He had been taken to a magistrate some 29.5 hours after his arrest, even though federal agents had questioned him in the same building in which federal magistrate judges had their chambers.

The Circuit Court, following its own precedents, ruled that the 1968 law entirely abrogated the McNabb-Mallory rule and replaced it with a pure voluntariness test.  Since there was no dispute that Corley’s confessions were voluntary, and were properly admitted regardless of whether the delay in taking him to court was unnecessary or unreasonable.

The Souter opinion overturning the Third Circuit said that that Court had not made a decision about the time of Corley’s confessions and the time of his appearance before a magistrate judge but had relied solely on the voluntariness finding. The case thus was returned for a new review.

Joining in the opinion were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote for the dissenters, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  Alito wrote that the “unambiguous language” of the 1968 law made Corley’s voluntary confession admissible.

Moreover, the dissenters argued, the McNabb-Mallory rule, with its exclusion from trials of some voluntary confessions, is no longer clearly needed.  They contended that the Court’s later requirement, in Miranda, that suspects in custody be warned of their rights provides suspects with the necessary protection that, in earlier times, they may have needed.  “Now,” the dissenting opinion said, “Miranda ensures that arrestees receive such advice [of their rights] at an even earlier point, within moments after being taken into custody.”