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U.S. Supreme Court Rethinks Miranda Suspect Protections

By Joan Biskupic

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would decide whether its 1966 Miranda decision, the legendary ruling that requires police to tell suspects in custody their rights, is still good law.

At stake is one of the best-known principles of the American legal system: that police must inform suspects of their right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law, and that they have a right to have a lawyer present during questioning. The Miranda protections are a hallmark of the liberal era of Chief Justice Earl Warren and, through their repetition in movies and television, a staple of American popular culture.

A challenge to the landmark decision has arisen, however, because this year a Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court ruled that Congress effectively reversed Miranda with a law passed in 1968. Though never enforced, the law enabled confessions to be used at trial even when criminals had not been warned of their right to remain silent. The February decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland and three neighboring states, shocked the legal community at the time, but it has been embraced by a small but forceful band of conservative lawyers who believe Miranda has handicapped law enforcement efforts.

The case, Dickerson- v. United States, will present one of the most significant tests to date of how far the Rehnquist Court will go in bolstering law enforcement over defendants’ rights. It will also put the spotlight on the aggressive jurisprudence of the 4th Circuit, a panel that has cut a large swath in recent years with its conservative decisions and bold rhetoric. Neither side in the Dickerson case -- concerning a bank robber who claimed he had not been properly read his rights -- had questioned the validity of Miranda; the 4th Circuit took it upon itself to revive the 1968 law passed to abolish Miranda.

The justices also announced Monday that they would take up a high-profile case concerning federal court judges’ oversight of prison conditions.