Obama administration seeks to change police questioning law
The Obama administration is urging the US Supreme Court to overturn a landmark decision that stops police from questioning suspects unless they have a lawyer present.
The effort to sweep aside the 23-year-old Michigan vs Jackson ruling is one of several moves by the new government to have dismayed civil rights groups.
President Barack Obama has already provoked controversy by backing the continued imprisonment without trial of enemy combatants in Afghanistan and by limiting the rights of prisoners to challenge evidence used to convict them.
The Michigan vs Jackson ruling in 1986 established that, if a defendants have a lawyer or have asked for one to be present, police may not interview them until the lawyer is present.
Any such questioning cannot be used in court even if the suspect agrees to waive his right to a lawyer because he would have made that decision without legal counsel, said the Supreme Court.
However, in a current case that seeks to change the law, the US Justice Department argues that the existing rule is unnecessary and outdated.
The sixth amendment of the US constitution protects the right of criminal suspects to be “represented by counsel”, but the Obama regime argues that this merely means to “protect the adversary process” in a criminal trial.
The Justice Department, in a brief signed by Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, said the 1986 decision “serves no real purpose” and offers only “meagre benefits”.
The government said that suspects have the right to remain silent, and that officers must respect that decision. But it argued that there is no reason a defendant who wants to speak without a lawyer present should not be able to respond to officers’ questions.
Critics argue that the 1986 decision is important to protect vulnerable defendants such as the mentally disabled, poor or juveniles who could be easily swayed by the police.
“Your right to assistance of counsel can be undermined if somebody on the other side who is much more sophisticated than you are comes and talks to you and asks for information,” said Sidney Rosdeitcher, a New York lawyer who advises the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University.
Stephen Bright, a lawyer who works with poor defendants at the Southern Centre for Human Rights in Atlanta, described the administration’s position as “disappointing – no question”.
Nineteen former judges and prosecutors – including Larry Thompson, the ex-deputy attorney general, and Williams Sessions, a former FBI director – have urged the Supreme Court to leave the 1986 ruling intact.
By Tom Leonard in New York
Last Updated: 4:55PM BST 24 Apr 2009
Source: The Telegraph