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Break in custody permits re-interrogation

Below, Diana Gillis recaps today’s opinion in Maryland v. Shatzer. Diana is a law student at Georgetown and a former summer associate at Akin Gump. Check the Maryland v. Shatzer (08-680) SCOTUSwiki page for more information on the case.

Today, the Court issued its opinion in No. 08-680, Maryland v. Shatzer.  [You can read my preview of the case here and my recap of the oral argument here.]  Justice Scalia wrote the opinion, which six other Justices joined in full.  Justice Thomas concurred in part and concurred in the judgment; Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment.   The Court held that a fourteen-day break in custodial interrogation ends the Edwards presumption that a Miranda waiver at a subsequent interrogation is the result of coercion.  In reversing the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that Shatzer’s return to his normal pre-interrogation life in the general prison population for a period of two-and-one-half years before re-interrogation constituted a sufficient break in custody to end the Edwards presumption and enable him to voluntarily waive his Miranda rights.  Therefore, Edwards did not require that Shatzer’s re-interrogation statements be suppressed, and the Court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The Court reasoned that a suspect who has been released for at least two weeks following the custodial interrogation in which he initially asserted a right to counsel will have had sufficient time to re-acclimate to his normal life, consult with counsel, family, and/or friends, and rebound from any lingering coercive effects of the prior custody.  In adopting a bright-line fourteen-day rule, the Court noted the need for a clear and certain rule for law enforcement officers.  In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas disagreed with the Court’s creation of a fourteen-day rule, which he characterizes as arbitrary.

The Court next turned to the question of whether Shatzer’s return to the general prison population – where he was serving an unrelated sentence – constitutes a “break in custody” for Miranda purposes.  The Court – in a part of the opinion joined by seven Justices, including Justice Thomas – held that it did.  The Court reasoned that the release of a suspect who has been previously incarcerated back into the general prison population is a release to the suspect’s “accustomed surroundings and daily routine,” in which the suspect regains the same control over his life as he possessed prior to the interrogation.

In his opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Stevens agreed that the protections provided by Edwards do not live on eternally, but he expressed concern that a suspect who invokes his right to counsel but is not in fact provided with counsel is then able to voluntarily waive that right.  In Justice Stevens’s view, the Court also did not adequately support its conclusion that a fourteen-day break in custody removes the coercive effect against which Edwards was designed to protect; instead, the majority opinion relies on assumptions that are even more speculative when the break from interrogation merely returns the suspect to the prison environment.  He ultimately concurred in the judgment, however:  although Shatzer was never in fact provided with counsel, the substantial passage of time between the two interrogations precluded Shatzer from arguing that he had been denied counsel.