Criminal defense lawyers uniformly advise their clients to provide information to law enforcement only by and through an attorney, and for good reason. Many cases are prosecutable only because the defendant gave the police what they needed to make their case. In the past, attorneys did not have to worry about law enforcement sneaking behind their back to interrogate their criminal defendant clients, because the law protected the defendant from law enforcement using that information without the defendant’s express consent. But just in the past week, here in San Diego, I have been informed of two occasions where law enforcement has tried to question a client of mine without my prior knowledge or consent. In the past, making a run around the lawyer would have been clearly illegal conduct.
No longer. Law involving the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was recently changed by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Montejo v. Louisiana. The Court in Montejo overruled the famous Supreme Court case Michigan v. Jackson, where the Court held police are prohibited from initiating an interrogation of a defendant once an attorney has been appointed. Prior to Montejo, in situations where counsel is appointed by the court, there was a presumption that any later waiver of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is involuntary. As a result of this recent decision, in such cases where counsel is appointed for a defendant, the police are allowed to later interrogate the defendant when the defendant consents. The presumption that the statement was involuntary is no longer valid. This decision has a tremendous impact on criminal defendants as many defendants would assume that once counsel is appointed police interrogations are not permitted without counsel present. This decision exposes criminal defendants to less protection from interrogations by police after counsel is obtained.
Criminal defense attorneys must take a lesson from Montejo and advise law enforcement at the earliest stage in the proceedings that that the defendant expressly invokes his or her right to counsel and does not consent to any law enforcement contact without the attorney.
Indeed, the stakes for some defendants are high: Mr. Montejo himself was charged with first-degree murder, was convicted, and sentenced to death, thanks partly to his cooperation with the police. The court had appointed counsel but the police didn’t wait to question him. The police paid him a visit and obtained not only a letter of confession but took him on a field trip to locate the murder weapon. He later met his attorney for the first time. The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected his claim that his statements and gun should have been suppressed under the rule of Michigan v. Jackson, which forbids police interrogation after the right to counsel has been invoked. It held that Jackson’ s protection is not triggered unless the defendant has actually requested a lawyer or otherwise asserted his Sixth Amendment right, and here Mr. Montejo apparently did not actually make the request or assertion. The Court overruled Jackson. And Montejo sits on death row.
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