Iowa court delivers win for human rights Reaffirms Miranda

August 30, 2007 

After an hour of questioning, suspect Kevin Harris asked to have a lawyer present during an interrogation with Cedar Rapids police investigating a murder and arson. His request was not fulfilled. Instead, the detective continued asking questions, and ultimately wheedled a confession out of Harris.

A Linn County District Court judge relied, in part, on that confession to convict Harris of a felony after another district judge had dismissed Harris’ motion to have the confession thrown out. A three-judge panel of the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling and upheld Harris’ conviction.

Thus, in the eyes of Cedar Rapids police, county prosecutors, the Iowa attorney general, two trial-court judges and three appeals-court judges, no harm had been done to Harris’ constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment.

They all got it wrong.

Fortunately, the seven justices of the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the confession was obtained illegally and that Harris must have a new trial based on other evidence.

This ruling is not just a win for a guy charged with a hideous crime but also for anyone accused of any crime. It reaffirms the civil-liberties principle that no man may be made to testify against himself. This principle dates at least as far back as English common law and was made part of the American Constitution in the Bill of Rights.

The rules for protecting this right are bedrock criminal-justice law and procedure: The recitation of the Miranda warning – from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona – is a standard feature on television cop shows. Still, somehow, Iowa law-enforcement authorities and lower courts managed to get it wrong.

They argued that Harris waived his right to a lawyer – even after he repeatedly asked for one – because his request was “ambiguous” and because he continued to answer the detective’s questions. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Michael Streit, eviscerates that argument. Harris is on tape clearly and repeatedly asking for a lawyer, but the detective responded not by ending the interrogation but by saying, “You don’t trust us enough to do it without a lawyer?”

If Harris had continued the interview on his own initiative, he would have effectively waived his right to have a lawyer present. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the confession came after the detective – ignoring the request for a lawyer – re-initiated questioning.

The U.S. Supreme Court 26 years ago held that once a suspect in custody has asked for legal counsel, authorities may not continue questioning unless the suspect “knowingly and intelligently” waives the right to a lawyer by volunteering to continue answering questions without the assistance of counsel.

Harris clearly did not knowingly, intelligently or voluntarily waive his right to a lawyer. Rather, the Iowa Supreme Court said, Harris “clearly and unequivocally requested an attorney.” With the “don’t you trust us without a lawyer” question, the detective “deftly and subtly kept Harris talking,” the court said. Thus, his confession, illegally obtained, cannot be used against him.

Even though too many other lawyers and judges had this case wrong, the Iowa Supreme Court correctly and forcefully upheld vital legal protections of the Fifth Amendment. For that, Iowans should be proud of their court 


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