Monday, April 6, 2009

Interpretive Puzzle

Interesting decision from the Supreme Court today in Corley v. United States. Corley was arrested for allegedly robbing a bank and held in custody for over nine hours following which he confessed. The question was the admissibility of his confession.

Under the "McNabb-Mallory doctrine," which has been around for over 60 years, confessions to federal police are inadmissible if made after the unreasonable failure of the police to present an arrested suspect to a magistrate promptly. But in 1968, Congress enacted a statute that said that "a confession made . . . by . . . a defendant therein, while such person was under arrest . . . , shall not be inadmissible solely because of delay in bringing such person before amagistrate judge . . . if such confession is found by thetrial judge to have been made voluntarily . . . and if suchconfession was made . . . within six hours [of arrest]."

No problem, you would think; Corely was held for more than nine hours before confessing, so the statute doesn't apply and the McNabb-Mallory doctrine does. But there's a complication. The same statute also said that "a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given."

Now what? The five-Justice Court majority says that the general rule of admissibility doesn't apply to confessions made more than six hours after arrest. The four-Justice minority says that it does.

The Court majority has the better of this one. The general rule of admissibility of voluntary confessions seems very broad, but if it really is so broad, what is the 6-hour window provision doing there? It's totally redundant to say that voluntary confessions made within six hours of arrest are admissible if all voluntary confessions are admissible.

As the Court held, a better understanding is that the general provision was designed to overturn the Miranda decision (a design that the Court thwarted, incidentally), and the other provision is specifically directed at limiting the McNabb-Mallory doctrine. Therefore, the provision specifically directed at the situation of unnnecessarily elongated questioning applies, and it limits, but does not eliminate, the McNabb-Mallory doctrine.

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