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Court approves limited Miranda warnings

Below, Stanford Law School’s Sam Bateman recaps the opinion handed down yesterday in Florida v. Powell.  Sam wrote a preview and recap of the oral argument in the case in December.  Additional information is available at the Florida v. Powell (08-1175) SCOTUSwiki page.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court held in Florida v. Powell that Tampa police officers adequately warned a criminal suspect of his Miranda rights when they advised him that he had “the right to talk to a lawyer before answering [any] questions” and that he could invoke that right “at any time.”  By a vote of seven to two, the Court overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, which had previously found those warnings to be constitutionally insufficient.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg first quickly dismissed Powell’s argument that the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because the Florida court’s decision rested on adequate and independent state grounds.  Rather, the Court concluded, there was no clear statement that the Florida decision was grounded in any state doctrine separate from the federal constitutional precedent of Miranda v. Arizona.

Turning to the merits of the case, the Court emphasized that Miranda requires only that law enforcement officers “clearly inform” suspects of their legal rights, including the right to consult with counsel and to have that counsel present during interrogations.  The Tampa Police Department’s warnings satisfied that standard because “[i]n combination, the two warnings reasonably conveyed the right to have an attorney present.”

The Court acknowledged that more precise formulations of the warning are possible, and perhaps even preferable in some circumstances.  In fact, the Court’s opinion specifically lauded the standard FBI warnings as “exemplary” because they explicitly inform suspects of their right to an attorney’s presence during questioning.  But while such explicit warnings are “admirably informative,” the Court ultimately concluded that they are not constitutionally required.  Law enforcement officers thus enjoy some latitude to communicate Miranda rights to suspects using different language, so long as the essential message of the warnings remains intact.

Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Breyer joined in part.  Stevens argued that under the adequate and independent state ground doctrine, the Court did not have the power to review the Florida state court’s decision.  Moreover, in the portion of the opinion joined by Justice Breyer, Justice Stevens concluded that the Tampa warnings were inadequate because they entirely failed to inform Powell of his right to an attorney’s presence during interrogation, instead misleadingly suggesting that he could only consult with a lawyer before questioning began.