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This Criminal Law Brief is concerned with the ruling of the Supreme Court in Davis v. the United States inrelation to three other cases in lower courts as well as future cases.

In Davis v. the United States, the Supreme Court made a ruling on the issue of how succinctly a criminal suspect must request his/her Fifth Amendment right to counsel. The decision of the Court was that after a suspect waives his/her Miranda rights, officers of the law are permitted to continue their questioning unless the suspect makes a clear and coherent request for an attorney or the questioning clearly violates the suspect's Fifth Amendment rights. In other words, this request must be unambiguous. Thus, this decision relieves the government of the "entire burden" of protecting the individual's privilege against self-incrimination. 

Because the request must be unambiguous, this Supreme Court case permits lower courts, both constitutionally and practically, a certain latitude to interpret or ignore those requests for an attorney when they are considered ambiguous. Also according to the author of this brief, because the Davis ruling only addressed post-waiver of requests for an attorney, this case left open the determination of whether "its objective test" applies in pre-waiver situations.Since the Davis ruling, there have been cases in which an ambiguous request was made before the Miranda warnings were given. The author analyzes these cases which follow the tendency of state and federal courts to decline extending the ruling of Davis to pre-waiver instances.

At this point, the author divides his discussion into parts:

  • Miranda v. Arizona 

Here the author reviews the landmark case in which suspects were protected from police coercion during interrogations. The ruling in this case suggested that the suspects should be allowed the benefit of the doubt in the interpretation of ambiguous requests for legal counsel. The Court invoked the Fifth Amendment as a suspect's right against self-incrimination. Thus, a suspect is warned that he/she has a right to remain silent, that any statement made can be used against him/her, and he/she has a right to legal counsel. [When these conditions are given by law enforcement, this is called reading a suspect his/her Miranda.]

Whether this case has been effective in protecting suspects is debatable because there are variables that enter the evaluation. For, while studies show that some individuals are discouraged from providing information to the authorities, others feel protected by the warning, and feel encouraged to speak. In addition, there are other factors that affect confessions, factors that do not pertain to Miranda:

  1. Police expertise in interrogation
  2. The amount of time spent in interrogation
  3. The urgency of the interrogation

Courts have also narrowed down the exclusionary rule of Miranda as, for instance, in the creation of a "public safety exception." Of course, in Davis v. the United States,  the court ruled that after a suspect waives his/her rights voluntarily, the officers of the law may continue their questioning unless the suspect makes a clear request for an...

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  • Davis v. the United States

In the next part, the author discusses the limits of Davis v. the United States which has been mentioned above. In their decision, the Justices ruled that law enforcement may continue an interrogation in which Miranda rights have been waived until such time that a suspect "clearly requests an attorney," arguing that the Miranda warning should be sufficient to protect against any coercion.

  • Justice Soulter and the Clarification Approach

Law professor Marcy Strauss has argued that Davis should be viewed as a limited rule and be applied only to post-Miranda waiver situations. She further puts forth that courts should require that any ambiguous or equivocal requests by suspects be clarified before questioning or the continued questioning of a suspect. The author concurs with this opinion in regard to ambiguous requests in pre-waiver situations. He also feels that the burden of proof that the suspect has clearly waived Miranda rights should be placed upon the authorities. And, while all questioning ceases under Miranda when a suspect requests legal counsel, the author proposes that a question to clarify what exactly the suspect wants should be asked. After this, however, the authorities must cease their interrogation if the suspect unambiguously invokes his rights.

The author discusses cases that have held Davis to be applicable, regardless of its timing (i.e. whether it is pre-waiver or post-waiver of Miranda). In his discussion, he points to two cases, Abela v. Martin and In the Matter of H.V., a juvenile.Additionally, there is a discussion of the potential abuses of Davis. In this case nothing is stated that there are no stipulations upon the manner in which interrogators must respond to a request for an attorney. In other words, there is no restriction placed upon police that they cannot mislead the suspect by "lying about the evidence, witnesses, and the likelihood of prosecution." In fact, reference is made to certain abuses of the police in their interrogations, such as waiting to give the Miranda warnings until after having obtained confessions. Rulings have been subsequently made that police are not allowed to use misinformation about Miranda rights in order to move a suspect to waive these rights.

  • United States v. Rodriquez

In this case, the suspect Rodriquez was stopped by police because he was driving erratically. When the Texas Ranger saw that he possessed a gun and he was a registered felon, the officer advised him of his Miranda rights; Rodriquez replied "I'm good for tonight." However, the court determined that this phrase is ambiguous and the officer should have ascertained what Rodriquez really meant. Therefore, the court concluded that the burden of clarification of any ambiguous statement is upon law enforcement, not the suspect.

  • United States v. Fry

This is another case in which the arresting officers did not clarify the suspect Fry's statement regarding a lawyer. In addition, Fry's request was made before his rights were read to him, not after.In this case, the Court concluded that the arresting officer's failure to clarify Fry's statement violated his rights, thus rendering Fry's confession tainted.

  • State v. Blackburn

This case which was held before the South Dakota Supreme Court reiterated the rulings of Rodriquez and Fry: the investigators must clarify the waiver of Miranda rights before proceeding with their questioning. Since this was not what occurred, the court ruled that the arresting officer "had a duty to clarify Blackburn's statement to determine if he wanted an attorney."


With regards to these three cases, the author concludes that the rulings were justified. He hopes that other courts will rule similarly because the police have an obligation to clarify any ambiguities about the suspect's desire for legal counsel before proceeding.

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