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Argument Preview: Maryland v. Shatzer

Below, Diana Gillis previews Maryland v. Shatzer, one of the cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday, October 5. Diana is a rising third year at Georgetown University Law School and a summer associate at Akin Gump. Check the Maryland v. Shatzer SCOTUSwiki page throughout the summer for additional updates.

Argument Preview

The Fifth Amendment provides that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  Miranda protects this right in the context of custodial interrogation by requiring the police to inform suspects of their right to counsel.  If the right to counsel is asserted, Edwards v. Arizona mandates that the police cease all questioning until counsel is present or the suspect voluntarily initiates further conversation.  In Maryland v. Shatzer, No. 08-680, the Court will consider whether Edwards continues to prohibit interrogation when nearly three years has lapsed since the right to counsel was asserted and the suspect has remained incarcerated throughout that time for an unrelated crime.


In August 2003, the police interviewed Michael Shatzer, Sr. – who was then serving a sentence for an unrelated offense – regarding allegations that he had sexually abused his three-year-old son.  Shatzer invoked his right to counsel, ending the interrogation, and the investigation was subsequently closed.  In March 2006, when Shatzer’s son was older and able to provide more information, a different police officer informed Shatzer, who was still incarcerated, that a new investigation had been initiated.  Shatzer waived his Miranda rights and denied allegations that he forced his son to perform fellatio on him, but admitted to masturbating in front of him.  Several days later, Shatzer was again Mirandized and then failed a polygraph test.  During questioning immediately thereafter, he began to cry and say “I didn’t force him.  I didn’t force him.”  Only then did Shatzer request an attorney; the interview ended, and he was charged with sexually abusing his son.

At trial, Shatzer filed a motion to suppress his March 2006 statements on the ground that, under Edwards, his 2003 invocation of his right to counsel barred police from interrogating him in 2006 without an attorney present.  The trial court denied the motion, holding that his continuous incarceration on an unrelated offense for nearly three years constituted a break in custody for Miranda purposes, thereby terminating Edwards‘s prohibition on reinterrogation.  The court found Shatzer guilty of sexual abuse.

The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed.  It held that under Edwards, once the right to counsel is asserted, the suspect may not be reinterrogated until he is provided with counsel or he voluntarily initiates communication.  The Court stated that “the passage of time alone” will not end Edwards protections.  Any “break in custody” exception to Edwards must mean something different than “custody” for Miranda purposes and, regardless, is inapplicable to an inmate who has been continuously incarcerated between interrogations.

Maryland filed a petition for certiorari in which it asked the Supreme Court to grant review to resolve disagreement in the lower courts on whether the Edwards prohibition on reinterrogation may terminate as a result of either a break in custody or a substantial lapse in time.  The petition was granted on January 26, 2009.

Brief for Petitioner

Maryland argues that when, as here, there has been a break in custody or a substantial lapse of time between interrogations, the Edwards presumption should not apply and reinterrogation should be permitted when it is accompanied by a voluntary Miranda waiver.  Such a result, the State contends, is fully consistent with the goals of Edwards:  preventing police from badgering a suspect to waive his Miranda rights and protecting the suspect from making coerced statements.

Maryland first argues that after Shatzer’s initial interrogation, there was a break in custody for Miranda purposes because he was returned to the general prison population, where he was serving a sentence for an unrelated crime.  Because he was not in police custody for questioning, he could not have continuously been subject to the coercive pressures of custodial interrogation against which Edwards is intended to protect.

The decision below should also be reversed, the State asserts, because the substantial lapse in time between interrogations further eliminated any coercive environment created by custodial interrogation.  Allowing prohibitions of Edwards to continue indefinitely, the State warns, would provide suspects with permanent protection from interrogation, which would not serve the goals of Edwards but would needlessly impede legitimate police investigation.

In the State’s view, the protections provided by Edwards should be limited to the period in which the suspect is being held by police for questioning.  Here, because over two-and-a-half years had passed between interrogations and incarceration for an unrelated crime does not constitute “custody” for Miranda purposes, Edwards no longer applied.

Brief for Respondent

Shatzer asserts that once a suspect has asked for the assistance of counsel, it must be presumed that he would like to have such assistance in future interrogations regarding the same allegations.   Shatzer first argues that the Court should maintain Edwards‘ bright-line rule barring reinterrogation and that a “break in custody” exception would undermine Edwards‘s goal of ensuring that custodial statements are not obtained through coercion.  In particular, Shatzer notes, a suspect who requested but did not receive counsel is unlikely to believe that a second request for counsel would be honored and, therefore, is more likely to believe that he has no choice but to speak.  A “break in custody” exception would also create perverse incentives for the police to either ignore requests for counsel or to release and re-arrest a suspect in the hope that he will change his mind and waive his Miranda rights.  Officers would also be required to make difficult case-by-case determinations on whether there has been a “break in custody.”

Nor, Shatzer argues, should the Court recognize any exception to Edwards based on the lapse of time since the initial interrogation.  Further, Shatzer argues that any set time frame after which Edwards would expire would be arbitrary.  There is no logical point after which the concerns of Edwards no longer apply – why a suspect would not feel coerced after 30 days, as suggested by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, as opposed to three months or three hours, is without reason.

Turning to the broader implications of the Court’s ruling, Shatzer dismisses the State’s argument that applying Edwards indefinitely will hamper legitimate law enforcement as overstated.  He explains that preserving the scope of Edwards will not result in the exclusion of all evidence arising from reinterrogation:  to the contrary, statements by suspects can be used under a variety of circumstances, such as when counsel is present.

Finally, Shatzer argues that even if the Court were to recognize a “break in custody” exception to Edwards, such an exception would not apply to him because he was continuously in custody.  His position was exactly the same during the 2006 interrogation as it was in 2003, nothing changed to indicate that he had changed his mind about having the assistance of counsel -  he never actually met with counsel, he remained incarcerated where his movement was restricted, he faced the uncertainty of potential charges or punishment, and he was questioned about the same allegations.

Amicus Briefs

The United States filed an amicus brief supporting Maryland, as did a group of thirty-seven states.  The amici ask the Court to balance the goals of Edwards with state law enforcement interests and hold that Edwards terminates when there is a break in custody.     They also echo Maryland’s arguments that serving a prison sentence constitutes a break in custody, as does a two-and-a-half-year lapse in time between interrogations, and that enforcing Edwards indefinitely would create significant obstacles to law enforcement.  One other amicus, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, urges the Court to limit the protections provided by Edwards to thirty days.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in support of Shatzer in which it argues that Edwards‘s bright-line rule should be maintained as is, particularly when the reinterrogation involves the same crime and the suspect is incarcerated.