Arizona v. Fulminante Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Supreme Court decision

By: Byron White and William H. Rehnquist

Date: March 26, 1991

Source: White, Byron, and William H. Rehnquist. Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991). Available online at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/499/279.html; website home page http://laws.findlaw.com (accessed May 4, 2003).

About the Authors: Byron White (1917–2002) was a Rhodes Scholar and talented athlete in college. He got his law degree from Yale University and played for a short time in the NFL. President John F. Kennedy (served 1961–1963) appointed White to the United States Supreme Court in 1962, and White served as an associate justice until 1993. William H. Rehnquist (1924–), after military service in World War II (1939–1945), received degrees from Stanford and Harvard, before graduating from Stanford Law School. President Richard Nixon (served 1969–1974) appointed Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989) appointed Rehnquist Chief Justice, and Rehnquist has generally led the court in a more conservative direction.

Introduction

The Bill of Rights amended the United States Constitution in 1791, stating certain rights held by all Americans. However, the meaning and proper application of these rights were (and are) not self-evident, especially in the context of the criminal justice system. An established principle of American law is that coerced confessions may not be used in a court of law against a defendant accused of a crime. Until the 1960s, different criminal procedures and constitutional protections very often applied at the state and federal level. The police also often had, especially after police forces were institutionalized, incentives for discouraging people to pursue their constitutional rights—as those policemen with higher confession rates and cleared cases were likely to be promoted faster. It was also unclear under the Constitution whether individuals had to be informed of their rights.

In the 1960s, the Warren Court began increasing the constitutional protections for criminal defendants and applying the same level of constitutional protections to defendants in both state and federal courts. In 1963, the Warren Court, at the urging of twenty-three states uncertain as to when indigent defendants had to receive appointed counsel, held that the right to counsel was fundamental to a fair trial. In 1964, the Court held that a confession obtained when a defendant was not able to consult his lawyer, and was not informed of his right to remain silent, was inadmissible in state courts. Finally, in 1966, in Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that the police were required to inform defendants of their constitutional rights.

Miranda was in some ways the high point of defendants' rights, because since that time, the Burger and Rehnquist courts generally have moved to limit them. The courts have generally held that any counsel fulfills one's constitutional right to counsel—a lawyer falling asleep in a death penalty case was not enough to overturn a conviction. In 1991, the Supreme Court heard a case dealing with the introduction of a coerced confession in Arizona v. Fulminante. Fulminante was suspected of the murder of his stepdaughter, but had not been tried. He was convicted and imprisoned on an unrelated felony in New York, where he encountered an FBI informant. Fulminante was being threatened due to other prisoners' beliefs that Fulminante had killed his stepdaughter. The informant, posing as a mob boss, offered Fulminante protection in prison if Fulminante told him the truth about his kids. Fulminante then confessed. He also provided a second, more detailed confession six months later. Fulminante returned to Arizona and was convicted of murdering his stepdaughter, based in part on the confessions.

Significance

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Fulminante, because it had been obtained in part through the use of a coerced confession. The important thing, though, was the standard used by Chief Justice Rehnquist in determining when the use of a coerced confession must cause the verdict to be overturned. Rehnquist and the majority of the court held that if the introduction of a coerced confession was merely a "harmless error" (the appellate court would need to review the remainder of the record to determine whether the admission of the confession was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt) then the conviction could still stand; and if it was not, then the conviction must be overturned and a new trial ordered. Previously, any use of a coerced confession in court generally caused the conviction to be overturned. This battle was won—another coerced confession was excluded—but the war to protect defendants' rights may have been lost because coerced confessions may be allowed in the future. It might not seem very important to protect Fulminante, as he confessed twice to brutally murdering his stepdaughter, but it is important to consider what crimes people might confess to, even if they have not done them, in order to be protected in a prison.

Primary Source: Arizona v. Fulminante [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: White first holds that there was a credible threat of violence. He and three other dissenting judges stated that the admission of a coerced confession can never be harmless error; that the conviction must be overturned, and the case remanded for a new trial to exclude the first confession. Rehnquist holds, for the court, that the admission of a confession can be a harmless error, but, in dissent, argues that there was no coerced confession here.

Justice White delivered the opinion Parts I, II, and IV of which are the opinion of the Court, and Part III of which is a dissenting opinion.…

We deal first with the State's contention that the court below erred in holding Fulminante's confession to have been coerced. The State argues that it is the totality of the circumstances that determines whether Fulminante's confession was coerced, … but contends that, rather than apply this standard, the Arizona court applied a "but for" test, under which the court found that but for the promise given by Sarivola, Fulminante would not have confessed.… Indeed, the Arizona Supreme Court stated that a "determination regarding the voluntariness of a confession … must be viewed in a totality of the circumstances," … and under that standard plainly found that Fulminante's statement to Sarivola had been coerced.

… The Arizona Court declared: "[T]he confession was obtained as a direct result of extreme coercion, and was tendered in the belief that the defendant's life was in jeopardy if he did not confess. This is a true coerced confession in every sense of the word." …

We normally give great deference to the factual findings of the state court.… Nevertheless, "the ultimate issue of 'voluntariness' is a legal question requiring independent federal determination." …

Although the question is a close one, we agree with the Arizona Supreme Court's conclusion that Fulminante's confession was coerced. The Arizona Supreme Court found a credible threat of physical violence unless Fulminante confessed. Our cases have made clear that a finding of coercion need not depend upon actual violence by a government agent; a credible threat is sufficient.… Accepting the Arizona court's finding, permissible on this record, that there was a credible threat of physical violence, we agree with its conclusion that Fulminante's will was overborne in such a way as to render his confession the product of coercion.

Four of us, Justices Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, and myself, would affirm the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court on the ground that the harmless error rule is inapplicable to erroneously admitted coerced confessions. We thus disagree with the Justices who have contrary views.

The majority today abandons what until now the Court has regarded as the "axiomatic [proposition] that a defendant in a criminal case is deprived of due process of law if his conviction is founded, in whole or in part, upon an involuntary confession, without regard for the truth or falsity of the confession … The Court has repeatedly stressed that the view that the admission of a coerced confession can be harmless error because of the other evidence to support the verdict is "an impermissible doctrine," … for "the admission in evidence, over objection, of the coerced confession vitiates the judgment because it violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." … Today, a majority of the Court, without any justification, … overrules this vast body of precedent without a word, and, in so doing, dislodges one of the fundamental tenets of our criminal justice system.

In extending to coerced confessions the harmless error rule of Chapman v. California, … the majority declares that because the Court has applied that analysis to numerous other "trial errors," there is no reason that it should not apply to an error of this nature as well. The four of us remain convinced, however, that we should abide by our cases that have refused to apply the harmless error rule to coerced confessions, for a coerced confession is fundamentally different from other types of erroneously admitted evidence to which the rule has been applied. Indeed, as the majority concedes, Chapman itself recognized that prior cases "have indicated that there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error," and it placed in that category the constitutional rule against using a defendant's coerced confession against him at his criminal trial.…

The inability to assess its effect on a conviction causes the admission at trial of a coerced confession to "defy analysis by 'harmless error' standards,", cf. post, at 309 (opinion of Rehnquist, C.J.), just as certainly as do deprivation of counsel and trial before a biased judge.

… [O]mission of a reasonable doubt instruction, though a "trial error," distorts the very structure of the trial, because it creates the risk that the jury will convict the defendant even if the State has not met its required burden of proof.…

These same concerns counsel against applying harmless error analysis to the admission of a coerced confession. A defendant's confession is "probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him," … so damaging that a jury should not be expected to ignore it even if told to do so, … and because, in any event, it is impossible to know what credit and weight the jury gave to the confession.

… The search for truth is indeed central to our system of justice, but "certain constitutional rights are not, and should not be, subject to harmless error analysis, because those rights protect important values that are unrelated to the truthseeking function of the trial." … The right of a defendant not to have his coerced confession used against him is among those rights, for using a coerced confession "abort[s] the basic trial process" and "render[s] a trial fundamentally unfair." …

For the foregoing reasons, the four of us would adhere to the consistent line of authority that has recognized as a basic tenet of our criminal justice system, before and after both Miranda and Chapman, the prohibition against using a defendant's coerced confession against him at his criminal trial. Stare decisis is "of fundamental importance to the rule of law," … the majority offers no convincing reason for overturning our long line of decisions requiring the exclusion of coerced confessions.

Since five Justices have determined that harmless error analysis applies to coerced confessions, it becomes necessary to evaluate under that ruling the admissibility of Fulminante's confession to Sarivola.… In so doing, it must be determined whether the State has met its burden of demonstrating that the admission of the confession to Sarivola did not contribute to Fulminante's conviction.… Five of us are of the view that the State has not carried its burden, and accordingly affirm the judgment of the court below reversing petitioner's conviction.

A confession is like no other evidence.… In the case of a coerced confession such as that given by Fulminante to Sarivola, the risk that the confession is unreliable, coupled with the profound impact that the confession has upon the jury, requires a reviewing court to exercise extreme caution before determining that the admission of the confession at trial was harmless.…

We have a quite different evaluation of the evidence. Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the State has failed to meet its burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the admission of Fulminante's confession to Anthony Sarivola was harmless error.… Because a major ity of the Court has determined that Fulminante's confession to Anthony Sarivola was coerced, and because a majority has determined that admitting this confession was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we agree with the Arizona Supreme Court's conclusion that Fulminante is entitled to a new trial at which the confession is not admitted. Accordingly the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court is

Affirmed.…

Chief Justice Rehnquist, with whom Justice O'Connor joins, Justice Kennedy and Justice Souter join as to Parts I and II, and Justice Scalia joins as to Parts II and III, delivering the opinion of the Court as to Part II, and dissenting as to Parts I and III.

The Court today properly concludes that the admission of an "involuntary" confession at trial is subject to harmless error analysis. Nonetheless, the independent review of the record which we are required to make shows that respondent Fulminante's confession was not, in fact, involuntary. And even if the confession were deemed to be involuntary, the evidence offered at trial, including a second, untainted confession by Fulminante, supports the conclusion that any error here was certainly harmless.…

The admissibility of a confession such as that made by respondent Fulminante depends upon whether it was voluntarily made.…

I am at a loss to see how the Supreme Court of Arizona reached the conclusion that it did. Fulminante offered no evidence that he believed that his life was in danger or that he, in fact, confessed to Sarivola in order to obtain the proffered protection.… The decision of the Supreme Court of Arizona rests on an assumption that is squarely contrary to this stipulation, and one that is not supported by any testimony of Fulminante.…

Fulminante was an experienced habitue of prisons, and presumably able to fend for himself. In concluding on these facts that Fulminante's confession was involuntary, the Court today embraces a more expansive definition of that term than is warranted by any of our decided cases.

Since this Court's landmark decision in Chapman v. California,, in which we adopted the general rule that a constitutional error does not automatically require reversal of a conviction, the Court has applied harmless error analysis to a wide range of errors, and has recognized that most constitutional errors can be harmless.…

The common thread connecting these cases is that each involved "trial error"—error which occurred during the presentation of the case to the jury, and which may therefore be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether its admission was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.…

It is on the basis of this language in Chapman that Justice White, in dissent, concludes that the principle of stare decisis requires us to hold that an involuntary confession is not subject to harmless error analysis. I believe that there are several reasons which lead to a contrary conclusion. In the first place, the quoted language from Chapmandoes not, by its terms, adopt any such rule in that case.…

The admission of an involuntary confession—a classic "trial error"—is markedly different from the other two constitutional violations referred to in the Chapmanfootnote as not being subject to harmless error analysis.… Each of these constitutional de privations is a similar structural defect affecting the framework within which the trial proceeds, rather than simply an error in the trial process itself.…

It is evident from a comparison of the constitutional violations which we have held subject to harmless error, and those which we have held not, that involuntary statements or confessions belong in the former category. The admission of an involuntary confession is a "trial error," similar in both degree and kind to the erroneous admission of other types of evidence. The evidentiary impact of an involuntary confession, and its effect upon the composition of the record, is indistinguishable from that of a confession obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment—of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment—or of a prosecutor's improper comment on a defendant's silence at trial in violation of the Fifth Amendment. When reviewing the erroneous admission of an involuntary confession, the appellate court, as it does with the admission of other forms of improperly admitted evidence, simply reviews the remainder of the evidence against the defendant to determine whether the admission of the confession was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nor can it be said that the admission of an involuntary confession is the type of error which "transcends the criminal process." This Court has applied harmless error analysis to the violation of other constitutional rights similar in magnitude and importance, and involving the same level of police misconduct.…

Of course an involuntary confession may have a more dramatic effect on the course of a trial than do other trial errors—in particular cases, it may be devastating to a defendant—but this simply means that a reviewing court will conclude in such a case that its admission was not harmless error; it is not a reason for eschewing the harmless error test entirely. The Supreme Court of Arizona, in its first opinion in the present case, concluded that the admission of Fulminante's confession was harmless error. That court concluded that a second and more explicit confession of the crime made by Fulminante after he was released from prison was not tainted by the first confession, and that the second confession, together with physical evidence from the wounds (the victim had been shot twice in the head with a large calibre weapon at close range and a ligature was found around her neck) and other evidence introduced at trial rendered the admission of the first confession harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.…

I would agree with the finding of the Supreme Court of Arizona in its initial opinion—in which it believed harmless error analysis was applicable to the admission of involuntary confessions—that the admission of Fulminante's confession was harmless. Indeed, this seems to me to be a classic case of harmless error: a second confession giving more details of the crime than the first was admitted in evidence and found to be free of any constitutional objection. Accordingly, I would affirm the holding of the Supreme Court of Arizona in its initial opinion, and reverse the judgment which it ultimately rendered in this case.

Further Resources

BOOKS

Bosmajian, Haig A. The Freedom Not to Speak. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Davis, Sue Justice. Rehnquist and the Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Dudley, William. The Bill of Rights: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1994.

Hutchinson, Dennis J. The Man Who Once was Whizzer White: a Portrait of Justice Byron R. White. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Levy, Leonard Williams. Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against Self-Incrimination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

PERIODICALS

Gangi, William. "The Supreme Court and Coerced Confessions: Arizona v. Fulminante in Perspective." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 16, no. 2, Spring 1993, 493.

McAuley, Daniel G. Jr. "Rehnquist Loses Battle but Wins War of Harmless Error: Arizona v. Fulminante." New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement 19, no. 1, Winter 1993, 175.