Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Yarborough v. Alvarado

A case missed by most of the press was decided on Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which involved the quasi-detainment of a seventeen year-old, sought a determination of the intent and spirit of Miranda rights, and whether age had any part in the process.
"The Miranda custody test is an objective test. Two discrete inquiries are essential: (1) the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, and (2) given those circumstances, whether a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interrogation and leave"
Despite the despicable actions of Alvarado and his accomplice, the spirit of Miranda seems to be ignored in the eventual ruling. In a 5-4 decision, split as usual along party and ideological lines, the Supreme court asserted that Miranda did not apply because 1) The interrogation was essentially "informal" and therefore, there was no expectation of Miranda rights, and 2) a normal person under similar circumstances would have believed his/her participation was voluntary and be able to stop the interview at any time.

When deciding when to apply Miranda, it seems the Court has missed the entire spirit of such declaration of rights. Miranda v Arizona produced a bare minimum of disclosure requirements prior to interrogating or officially handling witnesses and suspects. While the precedent is fairly clear as to when Miranda should be applied, it is disheartening to find the conservative Justices favoring State powers over individual rights, as they have in this case. By allowing interrogators to interview people under "temporary" or "informal" conditions, the spirit of Miranda has been violated, and the proper and just protections it provides have been pushed aside in favor of a strict and narrow interpretation of precedent-setting cases.
"The Miranda custody inquiry is an objective test...Ensuring that the police need not guess as to [the circumstances] at issue before deciding how they may interrogate the suspect."

But shouldn't the procedures favor the rights of the individual involved rather than the state? Under extreme and immediate conditions, Miranda waiver is expected and necessary in order to protect the citizenry. However, such a waivers is inexcusable under less immediate concerns. The burden of applying Miranda should fall on state representatives in a way that favors the retention and promotion of individual, not state, rights. Miranda should be assumed to be required, rather than favoring the usage of informal interrogation techniques.
"In concluding that such factors should also apply to the Miranda custody inquiry, the Ninth Circuit ignored the argument that that inquiry states an objective rule designed to give clear guidance to the police, while consideration of a suspect's individual characteristics, including his age, could be viewed as creating a subjective inquiry"
But doesn't this interpretation of Miranda shift the burden of understanding onto the individual rather than the state? In a case which set progressive and protective assurances into law, Miranda established the need to have such a burden fall on the state rather than the individual. Yarborough has brushed aside this concern for rights, and offer investigators legal protection against previously unlawful interrogation. Fifth Amendment rights must come into play here somewhere, and without the basic protections provided by Miranda during interrogations, individuals, specifically those whose age falls below majority status, experience degradation of Fifth Amendment protections.

In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer railed against this slight to Miranda protections.
"In my view, Michael Alvarado clearly was "in custody" when the police questioned him (without Miranda warnings)...The law in this case asks judges to apply, not arcane or complex legal directives, but ordinary common sense. Would a reasonable person in Alvarado's position have felt free simply to get up and walk out of the small room in the station house at will during his 2-hour police interrogation? I ask the reader to put himself, or herself, in Alvarado's circumstances and then answer that question: Alvarado hears from his parents that he is needed for police questioning. His parents take him to the station. On arrival, a police officer separates him from his parents. His parents ask to come along, but the officer says they may not... Another officer says, 'What do we have here; we are going to question a suspect.'"
It is my belief that most seventeen year olds would have felt obligated to take part in the interrogation under these circumstances. This was not an interview held on neutral turf, or in an area which offered a clear means of ending it, but instead took place at the police station, and was conducted by an official of the state. Most, if not all, teenagers, would find it hard to enforce his/her right to end the interview. Therefore, the spirit and letter of Miranda should apply to this circumstance.
"What reasonable person in the circumstance, brought to a police station by his parents at police request, put in a small interrogation room, questioned for a solid two hours, and confronted with claims that there is strong evidence that he participated in a serious crime, could have thought to himself, Well, anytime I want to leave I can just get up and walk out? If the person harbored any doubts, would he still think he might be free to leave once he recalls that the police officer has just refused to let his parents remain with him during questioning? Would he still think that he, rather than the officer, controls the situation?

There is only one possible answer to these questions. A reasonable person would not have thought he was free simply to pick up and leave in the middle of the interrogation. I believe the California courts were clearly wrong to hold the contrary, and the Ninth Circuit was right in concluding that those state courts unreasonably applied clearly established federal law.

The facts to which the majority points make clear what the police did not do, for example, come to Alvarado's house, tell him he was under arrest, handcuff him, place him in a locked cell, threaten him, or tell him explicitly that he was not free to leave. But what is important here is what the police did do, namely, have Alvarado's parents bring him to the station, put him with a single officer in a small room, keep his parents out, let him know that he was a suspect, and question him for two hours. These latter facts compel a single conclusion: A reasonable person in Alvarado's circumstances would not have felt free to terminate the interrogation and leave."

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