Taking the sixth

By Michelle Chen Jun 02, 2009

Prosecutors can thank the Supreme Court for making their job a bit easier, in a ruling that expands police authority to interrogate a suspect who does not have legal representation present. In Montejo v. State of Louisiana, Jesse Montejo was convicted of murder based on evidence yielded from an interrogation that took place in the absence of Montejo’s court-appointed attorney. Overturning a previous precedent, Michigan v. Jackson, the court decided last week that the suspect was exempt from longstanding Sixth Amendment protections because he had not explicitly demanded counsel, but rather remained “mute” while the judge ordered it. Justice Scalia argued, “when the marginal benefits of the Jackson rule are weighed against its substantial costs to the truthseeking process and the criminal justice system, we readily conclude that the rule does not ‘pay its way.’” Civil libertarians calculated the “cost” to the justice system differently. A brief filed by the ACLU, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights argued:

The Jackson rule ensures that the right to assistance of counsel does not become a meaningless abstraction, easily lost when police confront the defendant outside the presence of counsel…. [We] present empirical evidence that the concerns undergirding the Jackson rule are magnified for particularly vulnerable defendants, including the mentally and developmentally disabled, juveniles, those lacking education, those with substance addiction, and the indigent. These defendants are especially vulnerable to police suggestion that counsel is unnecessary, many such defendants lack the capacity to appreciate the importance of counsel, and many exhibit characteristics that make them prone to give false confessions.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Stevens wrote, “the Court fails to identify the real reliance interest at issue in this case: the public’s interest in knowing that counsel, once secured, may be reasonably relied upon as a medium between the accused and the power of the State.” The constitutionally guaranteed right to a lawyer is one link in a long chain of legal challenges in the criminal process, which ultimately have a disparate impact on the poor, people of color, youth and other disenfranchised groups. By further weakening access to counsel, the court’s decision strengthens the state’s ever-tightening grip over the fate of the accused. Image: Interrogation room in Kansas (Jonathan Saunders)