Ruling restricts court power to intervene in interrogations
LOUISVILLE, KY. — Kentucky’s Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the authority of courts to intervene in police interrogations, ruling in a case dealing with the questioning of a man during an investigation into his mother’s slaying.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. wrote that courts “are not vested with general jurisdiction” over criminal matters until prosecution begins. An exception is the authority of judges to issue search warrants, he said.
The case focused on whether a state criminal procedure rule gives judges the authority to intervene in police interrogations of suspects.
“The investigation of crimes is a function of the executive branch; and before prosecution of the accused reaches the courts, courts lack general jurisdiction to intercede via (the criminal procedure rule) in the investigation of the accused,” Minton wrote.
Prosecution begins in the court system through such means as a criminal citation, arrest warrant, criminal summons or grand jury indictment, he said.
The ruling stems from a case in which Samuel Terrell was taken into custody by police investigators wanting to question him about his mother’s slaying. A circuit judge — at the request of Terrell’s father — halted the questioning until Terrell was allowed access to a public defender.
The judge’s order was upheld by the state Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court vacated the circuit court’s order in Thursday’s ruling.
With its opinion, the state’s high court retreated from a ruling in a prior case that held courts had the authority to interrupt police interrogations and to mandate an accused’s access to an attorney at the request of a “benevolent third party.”
Minton said an accused person has the right to an attorney during an interrogation, and said the criminal procedure rule guarantees that attorneys be given access to their clients in custody. But the rule is not “a vehicle for the appointment of an attorney or interference by the judicial branch in pre-prosecution criminal investigations,” the chief justice wrote.
“It could be accurately described as a visitation rule that prevents an attorney from being barred from meeting with the attorney’s client,” he said. “The rule does not … foist counsel on the individual in custody.”
Minton wrote that the constitutional right to counsel is a personal right.
“So the individual in custody retains control and may wish to refuse the attorney and continue talking with police,” he said.
Minton was joined by justices Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, Bill Cunningham, Mary Noble, Daniel Venters and David Allen Barber.
The ruling drew a dissent from Justice Michelle Keller. She maintained the circuit court had jurisdiction in the Terrell case, which she said negated the separation of powers argument. She said the case also delves into a primary function of the courts — to ensure individual rights aren’t violated.
“If the court cannot intervene to protect a constitutional right at this most critical stage, then the right has no meaning,” she wrote.