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Supreme Court: Physical Evidence in Miranda Settings

In June 2004, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, issued an important ruling concerning how Miranda warnings relate to the suppression of physical items seized by police. The question before the Court in this case, which started from Colorado, was whether the “physical fruits” (physical evidence) discovered as a result of voluntary, but unwarned, statements had to be suppressed. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, determined that such seized physical items do not have to be suppressed and can be used at trial.

As with many cases that end before the Supreme Court, this one originated from a relatively small incident. In June 2001, officers from the Colorado Springs Police Department were assigned to investigate whether Samuel Frances Patane violated a restraining order by attempting to call his ex-girlfriend. Patane, as a convicted felon, was prohibited from possessing firearms, but the police had received a tip from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that Patane owned a Glock pistol.

The officers went to Patane’ home and arrested him for violating the restraining order. Detective Josh Benner tried to advise Patane of his Miranda rights, but Patane cut him off and responded that he knew his rights. Without completing the warnings, Benner then asked Patane about the pistol. Patane, after some reluctance, stated that the pistol was in a bedroom. The police searched there, found the weapon and took it for evidence.

At trial in the United States District Court, Patane moved to suppress the weapon, but lost. He appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. This Court reversed the trial court and the government appealed its decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in its decision, first noted that the Miranda Rule is meant to protect only against violations of the Self-Incrimination Clause. This clause reads “No person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The basic intent of the clause is, wrote Justice Thomas, only that a person not be compelled to testify orally against themselves at trial.

There is, according to him, no violation of the Self-Incrimination Clause by the admission of “physical fruits” discovered by police as a result of a defendant’s voluntary statement, even if Miranda is violated.

Justice Thomas even wrote that “[A] mere failure to give Miranda warnings does not, by itself, violate a suspect’s constitutional rights or even the Miranda rule [itself].” There is not even a constitutional problem if police deliberately or negligently fail to give the warnings. The problem of incomplete or absent Miranda warnings, however, does occur if the statements are admitted at trial.

At that point, per Justice Thomas, the suppression of such statements is a “complete and sufficient remedy” for any Miranda violations. Justice Thomas continued, “Thus, unlike unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment or actual violations of the Due Process Clause or the Self-Incrimination Clause, there is, with respect to mere failures to warn, nothing to deter. There is therefore no reason to apply the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine....”

Justice Thomas then turned his attention to the (as he perceived it) faulty reasoning of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. In his opinion, the basic mistake made by the Tenth Circuit was in believing that the taking of an unwarned statement was, in and of itself, a violation of a constitutional right.

This, Justice Thomas stated, was an error. “Introduction of the nontestimonial fruit of a voluntary statement, such as [Patane’s] Glock, does not implicate the Self-Incrimination Clause. The admission of such fruit presents no risk that a defendant’s coerced statements....will be used against him in a criminal trial.”

Part of the reasoning of the Tenth Circuit was based on the practical consideration that there was little difference between a statement and the actual physical evidence that was uncovered as a result of the statement. In the minds of most people outside the legal and police communities, this distinction may seem meaningless. In the view of Justice Thomas, however, it was a critical one that, moreover, aided police. “[T]he word ‘witness’ in the constitutional sense,” he wrote “limits the scope of the Self-Incrimination Clause to testimonial evidence [only].”

The dissenters in this case were Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsberg and Breyer. Like the Tenth Circuit, they argued that there was only an artificial distinction between statements and the physical evidence uncovered by use of the statements.

Justice Souter opined, “There is, of course, a price for excluding evidence, but the Fifth Amendment is worth a price, and, in the absence of a very good reason, the logic of Miranda should be followed: a Miranda violation raises a presumption of coercion, and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination extends to the exclusion of derivative evidence.” He concluded his dissent by stating, “There is no way to read this case except as an unjustifiable invitation to law enforcement officers to flout Miranda when there may be physical evidence to be gained.”

Although Justice Souter may be right at first glance, specifically that this case does open the door to allow physical evidence obtained as a result of a Miranda violation, he may have overlooked one important element. The facts involving Patane and the seizure of his pistol did not involve a deliberate manipulation of the Miranda rules by the police.

There was no attempt by the officers to trick Patane or to willfully manipulate the situation. Officers should be strongly advised not to read into this case a statement from the Supreme Court that physical evidence obtained in the violation of Miranda warnings will be allowed in all circumstances. Nor does the Patane decision affect the law in any state whose own state law may bar physical evidence found under these circumstances. In all, however, the Supreme Court decision in the Patane case can only be considered as a boost to law enforcement.

Joe and Diane Devanney can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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