Courts - Supreme Court Court: old attorney request no longer valid Request for counsel is good for just 14 days

By Jesse J. Holland

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court said Wednesday a request for a lawyer from someone under police interrogation is valid only for 14 days, reinstating the confession of a child molester who asked for a lawyer nearly three years before he confessed.

Michael Shatzer confessed while in prison in 2006 to abusing his own son; he had asked police for a lawyer when he was first questioned in 2003.

The decision marks the first time the court has set such a time limit; it will make it easier for police to question suspects without worrying that an old request for a lawyer will doom their case.

The right to an attorney has existed since 1966, when the Supreme Court said in its famous Miranda decision that people are entitled to have attorneys present during police questioning, and that interrogation must end if someone requests an attorney. And police cannot coerce a person into waiving his rights to a lawyer by keeping him in custody, the court said in 1981.

Shatzer was already imprisoned on a child sex abuse conviction in 2003 when police questioned him about allegations he also sexually abused his own 3-year-old son. Shatzer refused to talk and asked for a lawyer, and the questioning ended.

Then in 2006, Shatzer's son was old enough to offer details. When a different police officer approached Shatzer in prison, he waived his Miranda rights, made incriminating statements and was eventually convicted.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland threw out his confession, saying the passage of time did not make his first request for a lawyer less valid. The lower court judges also said that Shatzer's release from police interrogation back into the general prison population was not a sufficient break in custody to invalidate his lawyer request.

But Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said enough time had passed between the first and second interrogations for Shatzer, even though he was being held in prison.

"The duration of the break in custody here (2 1/2 years) was plainly enough," Scalia said.

Scalia said the high court thought it was "impractical" to let lower courts decide the time period for lawyer requests on a case-by-case basis.

"In our judgment, 14 days will provide plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody," Scalia said.

The court also said that Shatzer's release from police interrogation back into the general prison population was enough to constitute a break in custody. "Without minimizing the harsh realities of incarceration, we think lawful imprisonment imposed upon conviction does not create the coercive pressures identified in Miranda," Scalia said.

Justices Clarence Thomas and John Paul Stevens agreed with the Shatzer judgment, but had different opinions on the new 14-day rule.

Justice John Paul Stevens said the new 14-day time limit wasn't long enough, with police likely going to pick the same suspect back up again two weeks later for another try at a confession without a lawyer.

The court's opinion ignores the effect "of reinterrogating a suspect who took the police at their word that he need not answer questions without an attorney present," Stevens said.

But Thomas said setting any time limit is unnecessary.

Police may attempt to badger suspects into confessing by releasing them, and then picking them back up, Thomas said. "But if a suspect reenters custody after being questioned and released, he need only invoke his right to counsel to ensure ... protection for the duration of the subsequent detention," he said.

Thomas also envisioned police having difficulty figuring out whether a suspect had been in custody in the last two weeks, "especially if state and federal authorities are conducting simultaneous investigations."

The case is Maryland v. Shatzer, 08-680.

Published: Thu, Feb 25, 2010

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