(CN) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down an “unworkable” high court precedent that bars police from questioning a defendant without a lawyer present.
The justices voted 5-4 to overturn Michigan v. Jackson, which bars police from interrogating a defendant once he has requested counsel.
Petitioner Jesse Montejo was questioned by detectives in connection with a 2002 robbery and murder, and waived his rights to counsel. Before meeting with his court-appointed attorney, Montejo wrote an incriminating letter of apology to the victim’s widow. The letter was admitted at trial, despite his lawyer’s objections.
Montejo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence, rejecting Montejo’s claim that the letter should have been suppressed under the rule of Jackson.
The state court reasoned that Jackson protections are only triggered if the defendant formally requested a lawyer or otherwise asserted his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
But because Montejo stood mute at his 72-hour hearing while the judge appointed his attorney, the state justices decided that he made no such request.
Justice Scalia acknowledged that the Jackson precedent is unclear, because not all states require a defendant to formally request counsel.
However, the noted that rejecting the lower court’s application of Jackson and accepting Montejo’s would be “untenable as a theoretical and doctrinal matter.”
Under that argument, Scalia said, police would not be able to further interrogate a defendant once he is merely represented by a lawyer.
“Such a rule would be entirely untethered from the original rationale of Jackson,” Scalia noted.
The court solved the apparent no-win situation by overturning Jackson.
“We do not think that stare decisis requires us to expand significantly the holding of a prior decision – fundamentally revising its theoretical basis in the process – in order to cure its deficiencies,” Scalia wrote. “To the contrary, the fact that a decision has proved ‘unworkable’ is a traditional ground for overruling it.”
In dissent, Justice Stevens said the majority correctly pinpointed flaws in Jackson, but went too far in rejecting it outright.
“That conclusion rests on a misinterpretation of Jackson’s rationale and a gross undervaluation of stare decisis,” Stevens wrote. “The police interrogation in this case clearly violated petitioner’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”
Justices Souter and Ginsburg joined Stevens’ dissent, with Justice Breyer joining except for a footnote.