February 23, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Florida v. Powell

On February 23, the Supreme Court decided Florida v. Powell, No. 08-1175, holding that a police officer's explanation to a suspect before custodial interrogation that he had the right to talk to a lawyer before answering questions, and that he could use any of his rights at any time during the interview, satisfied Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), even though the officer did not expressly state that the suspect was entitled to have the lawyer present during questioning.

Powell was arrested in connection with a robbery investigation, and a gun was discovered in the room where he was arrested. Before he was questioned, he was given a Miranda warning that stated, among other things, that he had "the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" and that he could "use any of these rights at any time you want during the interview." Powell then admitted that he owned the gun and acknowledged that he was barred from possessing a gun because of a previous felony conviction. At his trial for illegal possession of a firearm, he moved to exclude his admission from evidence, alleging that he had not been adequately informed that he could have an attorney present during his questioning. The trial court rejected this argument, and Powell was convicted. But the Florida District Court of Appeals held that the statement should have been suppressed, holding that Powell had been told only that he could consult an attorney before questioning but not that he could also have the attorney present during questioning. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the statement of rights Powell received satisfied the requirements of Miranda. The Court stressed that, although a suspect must be informed of the right to have an attorney present during questioning, it has never dictated that specific language be used to convey this information. The words actually used should not be parsed "as if construing a will or defining the terms of an easement." The question is simply whether the warnings reasonably informed the suspect of his rights. The Court found that standard to be met here, refusing to indulge what it termed the "unlikely scenario" on which the state courts' reasoning rested—that the suspect could have understood the warning as allowing him to consult an attorney only if he "hop[ped] in and out of the holding area to seek his attorney's advice." Although it admitted that the warnings were not as clearly formulated as they might have been, the Court held them to be sufficient "when given a commonsense reading."

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor joined and in which Justice Breyer joined in part. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined in part.

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