Law School Case Brief
Montejo v. Louisiana - 556 U.S. 778, 129 S. Ct. 2079 (2009)
Once the adversary judicial process has been initiated, the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to have counsel present at all critical stages of the criminal proceedings. Interrogation by the State is such a stage. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel may be waived by a defendant, so long as relinquishment of the right is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. The defendant may waive the right whether or not he is already represented by counsel; the decision to waive need not itself be counseled. And when a defendant is read his Miranda rights (which include the right to have counsel present during interrogation) and agrees to waive those rights, that typically does the trick, even though the Miranda rights purportedly have their source in the Fifth Amendment. As a general matter an accused who is admonished with the warnings prescribed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Miranda has been sufficiently apprised of the nature of his Sixth Amendment rights, and of the consequences of abandoning those rights, so that his waiver on this basis will be considered a knowing and intelligent one.
At a preliminary hearing required by Louisiana law, petitioner Jesse Montejo was charged with first-degree murder, and the court ordered the appointment of counsel. Later that day, the police read Montejo his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694, and he agreed to go along on a trip to locate the murder weapon. During the excursion, he wrote an inculpatory letter of apology to the victim's widow. Upon returning, he finally met his court-appointed attorney. At trial in Louisiana state court, his letter was admitted over defense objection, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. Affirming, the state supreme court rejected Montejo's claim that the letter should have been suppressed under the rule of Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625, 106 S. Ct. 1404, 89 L. Ed. 2d 631, which prohibited police to initiate interrogation of a criminal defendant once he had invoked his right to counsel at an arraignment or similar proceeding. The court reasoned that Jackson's prophylactic protection was not triggered unless the defendant had actually requested a lawyer or has otherwise asserted his Sixth Amendment right to counsel; and that, since Montejo stood mute at his hearing while the judge ordered the appointment of counsel, he had made no such request or assertion. Montejo was granted a writ of certiorari.
Did the state supreme court properly interpret Jackson to mean that its prophylactic protection was not triggered unless the defendant had actually requested a lawyer or has otherwise asserted his Sixth Amendment right to counsel?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the rule adopted by the Supreme Court of Louisiana (that a criminal defendant must request counsel, or otherwise assert his Sixth Amendment right at a preliminary hearing, before the Jackson protections were triggered) led either to an unworkable standard, or to arbitrary and anomalous distinctions between defendants in different states. The distinction between those who asserted their right to counsel and those who did not would have been exceedingly hazy when applied to states that appointed counsel absent a request. It would have been completely unjustified to presume that a defendant's consent to police-initiated interrogation was involuntary or coerced simply because he had previously been appointed a lawyer. The Court held that the marginal benefits of Jackson (the number of confessions obtained coercively that were suppressed by its bright-line rule and would otherwise have been admitted) were dwarfed by its substantial costs (hindering society's compelling interest in finding, convicting, and punishing those who violate the law). The Court vacated the lower court's decision and remanded the matter so Montejo could have the opportunity to contend his letter should have been suppressed under Edwards.
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