In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court today overturned its own previously established rule limiting police from initiating an interrogation of a criminal defendant once he has requested an attorney at an arraignment or similar proceeding. Wait, does this mean what it sounds like it means? Can police simply ignore a defendant's prior request for an attorney and just pepper him with questions instead?
The way the alarming headlines read, one might think so, but in practical reality, things may not be changing quite as much as it sounds (although the four dissenting justices might disagree). Usually people hear about their "right to an attorney" in the context of the Miranda warnings that we hear recited all the time on TV or movies. What they might be surprised to know is that those famous Miranda warnings actually deal with the Fifth Amendment's protections against self-incrimination, as opposed to our rights to an attorney.
It is actually the Sixth Amendment that provides individuals with their right to the assistance of counsel in a criminal case, and it is that layer of protection which was dealt with in this case. However, as pointed out in the majority opinion, police still have to abide by rules protecting defendants who have already asked for counsel, and accused defendants have to give up their right to an attorney in a valid manner.
Indeed, the death penalty case addressed by the Supreme Court here was actually sent back to the lower courts to consider the question of whether the defendant (Jesse Montejo) asserted his right to an attorney when police asked him to go on an "excursion to locate the murder weapon". Of course, this raises some issues in some states such as Louisiana (where Montejo lived), where counsel is automatically assigned to indigent (poor) defendants. This might force such defendants into clearly "asserting" their right to counsel even if they've already been assigned one.