Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law
Adam J. McKee
JUSTICE O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
In Edwards v. Arizona (1981), we held that law enforcement officers must immediately cease questioning a suspect who has clearly asserted his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation. In this case we decide how law enforcement officers should respond when a suspect makes a reference to counsel that is insufficiently clear to invoke the Edwards prohibition on further questioning.
Pool brought trouble-not to River City, but to the Charleston Naval Base. Petitioner, a member of the United States Navy, spent the evening of October 2, 1988, shooting pool at a club on the base. Another sailor, Keith Shackleton, lost a game and a $30 wager to petitioner, but Shackleton refused to pay. After the club closed, Shackleton was beaten to death with a pool cue on a loading dock behind the commissary. The body was found early the next morning.
The investigation by the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) gradually focused on petitioner. Investigative agents determined that petitioner was at the club that evening, and that he was absent without authorization from his duty station the next morning. The agents also learned that only privately owned pool cues could be removed from the club premises, and that petitioner owned two cues-one of which had a bloodstain on it. The agents were told by various people that petitioner either had admitted committing the crime or had recounted details that clearly indicated his involvement in the killing.
On November 4, 1988, petitioner was interviewed at the NIS office. As required by military law, the agents advised petitioner that he was a suspect in the killing, that he was not required to make a statement, that any statement could be used against him at a trial by court-martial, and that he was entitled to speak with an attorney and have an attorney present during questioning. Petitioner waived his rights to remain silent and to counsel, both orally and in writing.
About an hour and a half into the interview, petitioner said, “Maybe I should talk to a lawyer.” According to the uncontradicted testimony of one of the interviewing agents, the interview then proceeded as follows:
“We made it very clear that we’re not here to violate his rights, that if he wants a lawyer, then we will stop any kind of questioning with him, that we weren’t going to pursue the matter unless we have it clarified is he asking for a lawyer or is he just making a comment about a lawyer, and he said, [‘]No, I’m not asking for a lawyer,’ and then he continued on, and said, ‘No, I don’t want a lawyer.'”
After a short break, the agents reminded petitioner of his rights to remain silent and to counsel. The interview then continued for another hour, until petitioner said, “I think I want a lawyer before I say anything else.” At that point, questioning ceased.
At his general court-martial, petitioner moved to suppress statements made during the November 4 interview. The Military Judge denied the motion, holding that “the mention of a lawyer by [petitioner] during the course of the interrogation [was] not in the form of a request for counsel and … the agents properly determined that [petitioner] was not indicating a desire for or invoking his right to counsel” Petitioner was convicted on one specification of unpremeditated murder, in violation of Art. 118, UCMJ, 10 U. S. C. § 918. He was sentenced to confinement for life, a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a reduction to the lowest pay grade. The convening authority approved the findings and sentence. The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review affirmed.
The United States Court of Military Appeals granted discretionary review and affirmed. The court recognized that the state and federal courts have developed three different approaches to a suspect’s ambiguous or equivocal request for counsel:
“Some jurisdictions have held that any mention of counsel, however ambiguous, is sufficient to require that all questioning cease. Others have attempted to define a threshold standard of clarity for invoking the right to counsel and have held that comments falling short of the threshold do not invoke the right to counsel. Some jurisdictions … have held that all interrogation about the offense must immediately cease whenever a suspect mentions counsel, but they allow interrogators to ask narrow questions designed to clarify the earlier statement and the [suspect’s] desires respecting counsel.”
Applying the third approach, the court held that petitioner’s comment was ambiguous, and that the NIS agents properly clarified petitioner’s wishes with respect to counsel before continuing questioning him about the offense.
Although we have twice previously noted the varying approaches the lower courts have adopted with respect to ambiguous or equivocal references to counsel during custodial interrogation, we have not addressed the issue on the merits. We granted certiorari to do so.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches only at the initiation of adversary criminal proceedings, and before proceedings are initiated a suspect in a criminal investigation has no constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. Nevertheless, we held in Miranda v. Arizona (1966), that a suspect subject to custodial interrogation has the right to consult with an attorney and to have counsel present during questioning, and that the police must explain this right to him before questioning begins. The right to counsel established in Miranda was one of a “series of recommended ‘procedural safeguards’ … that were not themselves rights protected by the Constitution but were instead measures to insure that the right against compulsory self-incrimination was protected.”
We also note that the Government has not sought to rely in this case on 18 U. S. C. § 3501, “the statute governing the admissibility of confessions in federal prosecutions,” and we therefore decline the invitation of some amici to consider it. Although we will consider arguments raised only in an amicus brief, we are reluctant to do so when the issue is one of first impression involving the right to counsel recognized in Miranda is sufficiently important to suspects in criminal investigations, we have held, that it “requires the special protection of the knowing and intelligent waiver standard.”
If the suspect effectively waives his right to counsel after receiving the Miranda warnings, law enforcement officers are free to question him. But if a suspect requests counsel at any time during the interview, he is not subject to further questioning until a lawyer has been made available or the suspect himself reinitiates conversation. This “second layer of prophylaxis for the Miranda right to counsel,” is “designed to prevent police from badgering a defendant into waiving his previously asserted Miranda rights,” To that end, we have held that a suspect who has invoked the right to counsel cannot be questioned regarding any offense unless an attorney is actually present. “It remains clear, however, that this prohibition on further questioning-like other aspects of Miranda-is not itself required by the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on coerced confessions, but is instead justified only by reference to its prophylactic purpose.”
The applicability of the “‘rigid’ prophylactic rule” of Edwards requires courts to “determine whether the accused actually invoked his right to counsel.” To avoid difficulties of proof and to the interpretation of a federal statute on which the Department of Justice expressly declines to take a position.
Invocation of the Miranda right to counsel “requires, at a minimum, some statement that can reasonably be construed to be an expression of a desire for the assistance of an attorney.” But if a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, our precedents do not require the cessation of questioning. Rather, the suspect must unambiguously request counsel.
As we have observed, “a statement either is such an assertion of the right to counselor it is not.” Although a suspect need not “speak with the discrimination of an Oxford don,” he must articulate his desire to have counsel present sufficiently clearly that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney. If the statement fails to meet the requisite level of clarity, Edwards does not require that the officers stop questioning the suspect.
We decline petitioner’s invitation to extend Edwards and require law enforcement officers to cease questioning immediately upon the making of an ambiguous or equivocal reference to an attorney.
The rationale underlying Edwards is that the police must respect a suspect’s wishes regarding his right to have an attorney present during custodial interrogation. But when the officers conducting the questioning reasonably do not know whether or not the suspect wants a lawyer, a rule requiring the immediate cessation of questioning “would transform the Miranda safeguards into wholly irrational obstacles to legitimate police investigative activity,” because it would needlessly prevent the police from questioning a suspect in the absence of counsel even if the suspect did not wish to have a lawyer present. Nothing in Edwards requires the provision of counsel to a suspect who consents to answer questions without the assistance of a lawyer. In Miranda itself, we expressly rejected the suggestion “that each police station must have a ‘station house lawyer’ present at all times to advise prisoners,” and held instead that a suspect must be told of his right to have an attorney present and that he may not be questioned after invoking his right to counsel. We also noted that if a suspect is “indecisive in his request for counsel,” the officers need not always cease questioning.
We recognize that requiring a clear assertion of the right to counsel might disadvantage some suspects who-because of fear, intimidation, lack of linguistic skills, or a variety of other reasons-will not clearly articulate their right to counsel although they actually want to have a lawyer present. But the primary protection afforded suspects subject to custodial interrogation is the Miranda warnings themselves. “Full comprehension of the rights to remain silent and request an attorney is sufficient to dispel whatever coercion is inherent in the interrogation process.” A suspect who knowingly and voluntarily waives his right to counsel after having that right explained to him has indicated his willingness to deal with the police unassisted. Although Edwards provides an additional protection-if a suspect subsequently requests an attorney, questioning must cease-it is one that must be affirmatively invoked by the suspect.
In considering how a suspect must invoke the right to counsel, we must consider the other side of the Miranda equation: the need for effective law enforcement. Although the courts ensure compliance with the Miranda requirements through the exclusionary rule, it is police officers who must actually decide whether or not they can question a suspect. The Edwards rule-questioning must cease if the suspect asks for a lawyer-provides a bright line that can be applied by officers in the real world of investigation and interrogation without unduly hampering the gathering of information. But if we were to require questioning to cease if a suspect makes a statement that might be a request for an attorney, this clarity and ease of application would be lost. Police officers would be forced to make difficult judgment calls about whether the suspect in fact wants a lawyer even though he has not said so, with the threat of suppression if they guess wrong. We therefore hold that, after a knowing and voluntary waiver of the Miranda rights, law enforcement officers may continue questioning until and unless the suspect clearly requests an attorney.
Of course, when a suspect makes an ambiguous or equivocal statement it will often be good police practice for the interviewing officers to clarify whether or not he actually wants an attorney. That was the procedure followed by the NIB agents in this case. Clarifying questions help protect the rights of the suspect by ensuring that he gets an attorney if he wants one, and will minimize the chance of a confession being suppressed due to subsequent judicial second guessing as to the meaning of the suspect’s statement regarding counsel. But we decline to adopt a rule requiring officers to ask clarifying questions. If the suspect’s statement is not an unambiguous or unequivocal request for counsel, the officers have no obligation to stop questioning him.
To recapitulate: We held in Miranda that a suspect is entitled to the assistance of counsel during custodial interrogation even though the Constitution does not provide for such assistance. We held in Edwards that if the suspect invokes the right to counsel at any time, the police must immediately cease questioning him until an attorney is present. But we are unwilling to create a third layer of prophylaxis to prevent police questioning when the suspect might want a lawyer. Unless the suspect actually requests an attorney, questioning may continue.
The courts below found that petitioner’s remark to the NIS agents—”Maybe I should talk to a lawyer”—was not a request for counsel, and we see no reason to disturb that conclusion. The NIS agents therefore were not required to stop questioning petitioner, though it was entirely proper for them to clarify whether petitioner in fact wanted a lawyer. Because there is no ground for suppression of petitioner’s statements, the judgment of the Court of Military Appeals is
Last Modified: 08/21/2019