Washington - The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a long-standing ruling that stopped police from initiating questions unless a defendant's lawyer was present, a move that will make it easier for prosecutors to interrogate suspects.
The high court, in a 5-4 ruling, overturned the 1986 Michigan v. Jackson ruling, which said police may not initiate questioning of a defendant who has a lawyer or has asked for one unless the attorney is present. The Michigan ruling applied even to defendants who agreed to talk to the authorities without their lawyers.
The court's conservatives overturned that opinion, with Justice Antonin Scalia saying "it was poorly reasoned."
Under the Jackson opinion, police could not even ask a defendant who had been appointed a lawyer if he wanted to talk, Scalia said.
"It would be completely unjustified to presume that a defendant's consent to police-initiated interrogation was involuntary or coerced simply because he had previously been appointed a lawyer," Scalia said in the court's opinion.
Scalia, who read the opinion from the bench, said the decision will have "minimal" effects on criminal defendants because of the protections the court has provided in other decisions. "The considerable adverse effect of this rule upon society's ability to solve crimes and bring criminals to justice far outweighs its capacity to prevent a genuinely coerced agreement to speak without counsel present," Scalia said.
The Michigan v. Jackson opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the only current justice who was on the court at the time. He and Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the ruling, and in an unusual move Stevens read his dissent aloud from the bench. It was the first time this term a justice had read a dissent aloud.
"The police interrogation in this case clearly violated petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to counsel," Stevens said. Overruling the Jackson case, he said, "can only diminish the public's confidence in the reliability and fairness of our system of justice."
The Obama administration had asked the court to overturn Michigan v. Jackson, disappointing civil rights and civil liberties groups that expected President Barack Obama to reverse the policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
The Justice Department, in a brief signed by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, said the 1986 decision "serves no real purpose" and offers only "meager benefits." The government said defendants who don't wish to talk to police don't have to and that officers must respect that decision. But it said there is no reason a defendant who wants to should not be able to respond to officers' questions.
Eleven states also echoed the administration's call to overrule the 1986 case.
The decision comes in the case of Jesse Jay Montejo, who was found guilty in 2005 of the shooting death of Louis Ferrari in the victim's home on Sept. 5, 2002.
Montejo was appointed a public defender at his Sept. 10, 2002 hearing, but never indicated that he wanted the lawyer's help. Montejo then went with police detectives to help them look for the murder weapon. While in the car, Montejo wrote a letter to Ferrari's widow incriminating himself.
When they returned to the prison, a public defender was waiting for Montejo, irate that his client had been questioned in his absence. Police used the letter against Montejo at trial, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed, but the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence.
The Supreme Court sent the case back for a determination of whether any of Montejo's other court-provided protections, like his Miranda rights, were violated.
The case is Montejo v. Louisiana, 07-1529.