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You May <i>Not</i> Have The Right...

The Supreme Court has set the stage for determining the fate of the Miranda police warnings, CBS News Correspondent John Hartge reports.

The justices agreed Monday to decide whether a federal law on the books since 1968 overturned - or at least dramatically limited - the court's 1966 decision requiring police to warn criminal suspects of their rights before questioning them. The federal law lay largely dormant for nearly 30 years, until a surprising federal appeals court ruling last April.

The case in question involves the incriminating statements a Maryland man made to FBI agents, and whether they can be used as evidence in his bank-robbery trial even though he may not have received a proper Miranda warning.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court said Charles Dickerson's incriminating remarks to FBI agents should be admitted as trial evidence against him.

The appeals court, by an 8-5 vote, ruled that the 1968 federal law - dubbed Section 3501 - means that failing to issue Miranda warnings is just one of several factors courts should consider in deciding whether statements to police were made voluntarily.

University of Utah
University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell

Neither Dickerson nor the federal prosecutors who had opposed his appeal focused on the 1968 law. But University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, representing the conservative Washington Legal Foundation as a friend of the court, argued that Section 3501 allowed use of Dickerson's statements regardless of any Miranda violation.

The appeals court agreed.

The Miranda decision requires police to read the following words to suspects under arrest, before they can be questioned:"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law."

The 1966 court, far more liberal than today's, sought to remedy what it characterized as "inherently coercive" interrogations by requiring police to tell suspects they are entitled to a lawyer's help while answering questions and to inform them that a lawyer will be appointed to represent them if they cannot afford one.

American law enforcement authorities initially hated the ruling, but many eventually credited it with improving police efficiency. Opposition never disappeared entirely, however, especially over what should happen when police fail to give the warnings.

Such failures now routinely result in a valuable piece of evidence a confession or some incriminating statement being lost to prosecutors.

The justices now must decide whether that 1968 law, known as Sectio3501, lawfully can be enforced.

In a brief Attorney General Janet Reno took the unusual step of signing, government lawyers argued that the federal law cannot be enforced because the Miranda decision "is of constitutional dimension" and "cannot be superseded merely by legislation."

CBS Legal Consultant Andy Cohen said Monday it's possible that Reno signed this particular brief personally to let the Supreme Court know that the Justice Department's failure to enforce this federal law these past 30 years was a purposeful policy decision.

Others say Miranda would rightfully be weakened:

"As it is right now, it is tilted all the way in the favor of criminals and defense attorneys," said Paul Kamenar, Executive Legal Director of the Washington Legal Foundation. "What this would do is bring back some balance."

Kamenar, a colleague of Cassell's, says that confessions, if they are not coerced, should bear weight in court regardless of whether Miranda rights were read.

In Monday's brief order, the justices appointed Cassell to defend the law before them.

The Miranda decision flowed from the Fifth Amendment's guarantee that no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." But the court never explicitly said its decision or the police warnings were required by the Fifth Amendment.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the 4th Circuit court that failure to give the warnings does not necessarily bar use of evidence in federal cases, states presumably would be free to follow Congress' lead and enact their own versions of Section 3501.

Either way, Cohen says, Miranda will remain part of the mix. But if Section 3501 is upheld, Miranda would be in a position to be seriously eroded by additional legislation.

The case is Dickerson vs. U.S., 99-5525.