Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986)

Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, the Supreme Court of Colorado held that the United States Constitution requires a court to suppress a confession when the mental state of the defendant, at the time he made the confession, interfered with his “rational intellect” and his “free will.” Because this decision seemed to conflict with prior holdings of this Court, we granted certiorari.  We conclude that the admissibility of this kind of statement is governed by state rules of evidence, rather than by our previous decisions regarding coerced confessions and Miranda waivers.  We therefore reverse.


On August 18, 1983, Officer Patrick Anderson of the Denver Police Department was in uniform, working in an off-duty capacity in downtown Denver.  Respondent Francis Connelly approached Officer Anderson and, without any prompting, stated that he had murdered someone and wanted to talk about it.  Anderson immediately advised respondent that he had the right to remain silent, that anything he said could be used against him in court, and that he had the right to an attorney prior to any police questioning.  Respondent stated that he understood these rights but he still wanted to talk about the murder.  Understandably bewildered by this confession, Officer Anderson asked respondent several questions.  Connelly denied that he had been drinking, denied that he had been taking any drugs, and stated that, in the past, he had been a patient in several mental hospitals.  Officer Anderson again told Connelly that he was under no obligation to say anything.  Connelly replied that it was “all right,” and that he would talk to Officer Anderson because his conscience had been bothering him.  To Officer Anderson, respondent appeared to understand fully the nature of his acts.

Shortly thereafter, Homicide Detective Stephen Antuna arrived.  Respondent was again advised of his rights, and Detective Antuna asked him “what he had on his mind.”  Respondent answered that he had come all the way from Boston to confess to the murder of Mary Ann Junta, a young girl whom he had killed in Denver sometime during November 1982.  Respondent was taken to police headquarters, and a search of police records revealed that the body of an unidentified female had been found in April 1983.  Respondent openly detailed his story to Detective Antuna and Sergeant Thomas Haney, and readily agreed to take the officers to the scene of the killing.  Under Connelly’s sole direction, the two officers and respondent proceeded in a police vehicle to the location of the crime. Respondent pointed out the exact location of the murder.  Throughout this episode, Detective Antuna perceived no indication whatsoever that respondent was suffering from any kind of mental illness.

Respondent was held overnight.  During an interview with the public defender’s office the following morning, he became visibly disoriented.  He began giving confused answers to questions, and for the first time, stated that “voices” had told him to come to Denver and that he had followed the directions of these voices in confessing.  Respondent was sent to a state hospital for evaluation.  He was initially found incompetent to assist in his own defense.  By March 1984, however, the doctors evaluating respondent determined that he was competent to proceed to trial.

At a preliminary hearing, respondent moved to suppress all of his statements.  Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a psychiatrist employed by the state hospital, testified that respondent was suffering from chronic schizophrenia and was in a psychotic state at least as of August 17, 1983, the day before he confessed.  Metzner’s interviews with respondent revealed that respondent was following the “voice of God.”  This voice instructed respondent to withdraw money from the bank, to buy an airplane ticket, and to fly from Boston to Denver.  When respondent arrived from Boston, God’s voice became stronger and told respondent either to confess to the killing or to commit suicide.  Reluctantly following the command of the voices, respondent approached Officer Anderson and confessed.

Dr. Metzner testified that, in his expert opinion, respondent was experiencing “command hallucinations.”  This condition interfered with respondent’s “volitional abilities; that is, his ability to make free and rational choices.”  Dr. Metzner further testified that Connelly’s illness did not significantly impair his cognitive abilities.  Thus, respondent understood the rights he had when Officer Anderson and Detective Antuna advised him that he need not speak.  Dr. Metzner admitted that the “voices” could in reality be Connelly’s interpretation of his own guilt, but explained that in his opinion, Connelly’s psychosis motivated his confession.

On the basis of this evidence the Colorado trial court decided that respondent’s statements must be suppressed because they were “involuntary.”  Relying on our decisions in Townsend v. Sain (1963) and Culombe v. Connecticut (1961), the court ruled that a confession is admissible only if it is a product of the defendant’s rational intellect and “free will.”  Although the court found that the police had done nothing wrong or coercive in securing respondent’s confession, Connelly’s illness destroyed his volition and compelled him to confess.  The trial court also found that Connelly’s mental state vitiated his attempted waiver of the right to counsel and the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination.  Accordingly, respondent’s initial statements and his custodial confession were suppressed.

The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed.  In that court’s view, the proper test for admissibility is whether the statements are “the product of a rational intellect and a free will.”  Indeed, “the absence of police coercion or duress does not foreclose a finding of involuntariness.  One’s capacity for rational judgment and free choice may be overborne as much by certain forms of severe mental illness as by external pressure.”  The court found that the very admission of the evidence in a court of law was sufficient state action to implicate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The evidence fully supported the conclusion that respondent’s initial statement was not the product of a rational intellect and a free will.  The court then considered respondent’s attempted waiver of his constitutional rights and found that respondent’s mental condition precluded his ability to make a valid waiver.  The Colorado Supreme Court thus affirmed the trial court’s decision to suppress all of Connelly’s statements.


The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  Just last Term, in Miller v. Fenton (1985), we held that by virtue of the Due Process Clause “certain interrogation techniques, either in isolation or as applied to the unique characteristics of a particular suspect, are so offensive to a civilized system of justice that they must be condemned.”

Indeed, coercive government misconduct was the catalyst for this Court’s seminal confession case, Brown v. Mississippi (1936).  In that case, police officers extracted confessions from the accused through brutal torture.  The Court had little difficulty concluding that even though the Fifth Amendment did not at that time apply to the States, the actions of the police were “revolting to the sense of justice.”  The Court has retained this due process focus, even after holding, in Malloy v. Hogan (1964), that the Fifth Amendment privilege against compulsory self-incrimination applies to the States.

Thus the cases considered by this Court over the 50 years since Brown v. Mississippi have focused upon the crucial element of police overreaching.  While each confession case has turned on its own set of factors justifying the conclusion that police conduct was oppressive, all have contained a substantial element of coercive police conduct.  Absent police conduct causally related to the confession, there is simply no basis for concluding that any state actor has deprived a criminal defendant of due process of law.  Respondent correctly notes that as interrogators have turned to more subtle forms of psychological persuasion, courts have found the mental condition of the defendant a more significant factor in the “voluntariness” calculus.  But this fact does not justify a conclusion that a defendant’s mental condition, by itself and apart from its relation to official coercion, should ever dispose of the inquiry into constitutional “voluntariness.”

Respondent relies on Blackburn v. Alabama (1960), and Townsend v. Sain (1963), for the proposition that the “deficient mental condition of the defendants in those cases was sufficient to render their confessions involuntary.”  But respondent’s reading of Blackburn and Townsend ignores the integral element of police overreaching present in both cases.  In Blackburn, the Court found that the petitioner was probably insane at the time of his confession and the police learned during the interrogation that he had a history of mental problems.  The police exploited this weakness with coercive tactics: “the eight- to nine-hour sustained interrogation in a tiny room which was upon occasion literally filled with police officers; the absence of Blackburn’s friends, relatives, or legal counsel; and the composition of the confession by the Deputy Sheriff rather than by Blackburn.”

These tactics supported a finding that the confession was involuntary.  Indeed, the Court specifically condemned police activity that “wrings a confession out of an accused against his will.”  Townsend presented a similar instance of police wrongdoing.  In that case, a police physician had given Townsend a drug with truth-serum properties. The subsequent confession, obtained by officers who knew that Townsend had been given drugs, was held involuntary. These two cases demonstrate that while mental condition is surely relevant to an individual’s susceptibility to police coercion, mere examination of the confessant’s state of mind can never conclude the due process inquiry.

Our “involuntary confession” jurisprudence is entirely consistent with the settled law requiring some sort of “state action” to support a claim of violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Colorado trial court, of course, found that the police committed no wrongful acts, and that finding has been neither challenged by respondent nor disturbed by the Supreme Court of Colorado.  The latter court, however, concluded that sufficient state action was present by virtue of the admission of the confession into evidence in a court of the State.

The difficulty with the approach of the Supreme Court of Colorado is that it fails to recognize the essential link between coercive activity of the State, on the one hand, and a resulting confession by a defendant, on the other.  The flaw in respondent’s constitutional argument is that it would expand our previous line of “voluntariness” cases into a far ranging requirement that courts must divine a defendant’s motivation for speaking or acting as he did even though there be no claim that governmental conduct coerced his decision.

The most outrageous behavior by a private party seeking to secure evidence against a defendant does not make that evidence inadmissible under the Due Process Clause.  We have also observed that “jurists and scholars uniformly have recognized that the exclusionary rule imposes a substantial cost on the societal interest in law enforcement by its proscription of what concededly is relevant evidence.” Moreover, suppressing respondent’s statements would serve absolutely no purpose in enforcing constitutional guarantees.  The purpose of excluding evidence seized in violation of the Constitution is to substantially deter future violations of the Constitution.  Only if we were to establish a brand new constitutional right—the right of a criminal defendant to confess to his crime only when totally rational and properly motivated—could respondent’s present claim be sustained.

We have previously cautioned against expanding “currently applicable exclusionary rules by erecting additional barriers to placing truthful and probative evidence before state juries . . . .”  We abide by that counsel now. “The central purpose of a criminal trial is to decide the factual question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence,” and while we have previously held that exclusion of evidence may be necessary to protect constitutional guarantees, both the necessity for the collateral inquiry and the exclusion of evidence deflect a criminal trial from its basic purpose.  Respondent would now have us require sweeping inquiries into the state of mind of a criminal defendant who has confessed, inquiries quite divorced from any coercion brought to bear on the defendant by the State.  We think the Constitution rightly leaves this sort of inquiry to be resolved by state laws governing the admission of evidence and erects no standard of its own in this area.

A statement rendered by one in the condition of respondent might be proved to be quite unreliable, but this is a matter to be governed by the evidentiary laws of the forum, see, e. g., Fed. Rule Evid. 601, and not by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  “The aim of the requirement of due process is not to exclude presumptively false evidence, but to prevent fundamental unfairness in the use of evidence, whether true or false.”

We hold that coercive police activity is a necessary predicate to the finding that a confession is not “voluntary” within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  We also conclude that the taking of respondent’s statements, and their admission into evidence, constitute no violation of that Clause.



The Supreme Court of Colorado went on to affirm the trial court’s ruling that respondent’s later statements made while in custody should be suppressed because respondent had not waived his right to consult an attorney and his right to remain silent.  That court held that the State must bear its burden of proving waiver of these Miranda rights by “clear and convincing evidence.”  Although we have stated in passing that the State bears a “heavy” burden in proving waiver, we have never held that the “clear and convincing evidence” standard is the appropriate one.

In Lego v. Twomey, this Court upheld a procedure in which the State established the voluntariness of a confession by no more than a preponderance of the evidence.  We upheld it for two reasons.  First, the voluntariness determination has nothing to do with the reliability of jury verdicts; rather, it is designed to determine the presence of police coercion.  Thus, voluntariness is irrelevant to the presence or absence of the elements of a crime, which must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Second, we rejected Lego’s assertion that a high burden of proof was required to serve the values protected by the exclusionary rule. We surveyed the various reasons for excluding evidence, including a violation of the requirements of Miranda v. Arizona, and we stated that “in each instance, and without regard to its probative value, evidence is kept from the trier of guilt or innocence for reasons wholly apart from enhancing the reliability of verdicts.” Moreover, we rejected the argument that “the importance of the values served by exclusionary rules is itself sufficient demonstration that the Constitution also requires admissibility to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Indeed, the Court found that “no substantial evidence has accumulated that federal rights have suffered from determining admissibility by a preponderance of the evidence.”

We now reaffirm our holding in Lego: Whenever the State bears the burden of proof in a motion to suppress a statement that the defendant claims was obtained in violation of our Miranda doctrine, the State need prove waiver only by a preponderance of the evidence.  If, as we held in Lego v. Twomey, the voluntariness of a confession need be established only by a preponderance of the evidence, then a waiver of the auxiliary protections established in Miranda should require no higher burden of proof.

“Exclusionary rules are very much aimed at deterring lawless conduct by police and prosecution and it is very doubtful that escalating the prosecution’s burden of proof in . . . suppression hearings would be sufficiently productive in this respect to outweigh the public interest in placing probative evidence before juries for the purpose of arriving at truthful decisions about guilt or innocence.”


We also think that the Supreme Court of Colorado was mistaken in its analysis of the question whether respondent had waived his Miranda rights in this case.  Of course, a waiver must at a minimum be “voluntary” to be effective against an accused.  The Supreme Court of Colorado in addressing this question relied on the testimony of the court-appointed psychiatrist to the effect that respondent was not capable of making a “free decision with respect to his constitutional right of silence . . . and his constitutional right to confer with a lawyer before talking to the police.”

We think that the Supreme Court of Colorado erred in importing into this area of constitutional law notions of “free will” that have no place there.  There is obviously no reason to require more in the way of a “voluntariness” inquiry in the Miranda waiver context than in the Fourteenth Amendment confession context.  The sole concern of the Fifth Amendment, on which Miranda was based, is governmental coercion.  Indeed, the Fifth Amendment privilege is not concerned “with moral and psychological pressures to confess emanating from sources other than official coercion.”  The voluntariness of a waiver of this privilege has always depended on the absence of police overreaching, not on “free choice” in any broader sense of the word.

Respondent urges this Court to adopt his “free will” rationale, and to find an attempted waiver invalid whenever the defendant feels compelled to waive his rights by reason of any compulsion, even if the compulsion does not flow from the police.  But such a treatment of the waiver issue would “cut this Court’s holding in Miranda completely loose from its own explicitly stated rationale.”  Miranda protects defendants against government coercion leading them to surrender rights protected by the Fifth Amendment; it goes no further than that.  Respondent’s perception of coercion flowing from the “voice of God,” however important or significant such a perception may be in other disciplines, is a matter to which the United States Constitution does not speak.


The judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is accordingly reversed, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

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Last Modified:  08/21/2019


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