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Sending a powerful message that cops are not above the law, the California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously overturned a murder conviction based on confessions gained by the deliberate violation of a suspected killer’s Miranda rights. “Officers must be made aware that they have an absolute obligation to play by the rules when questioning suspects in custody and that their deliberate failure to do so will be severely disciplined,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote in a thundering concurrence. “There can be no suggestion — formal or informal, direct or indirect — that improper interrogation tactics are required, encouraged, approved, condoned or tolerated. “Only in this way,” he said, “can the police perform the crucial responsibilities they carry.” In People v. Neal, 03 C.D.O.S. 6149, Kenneth Ray Neal was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life for the 1999 strangulation murder of 69-year-old Donald Collins — his friend and housemate in Springville. While interrogating the uneducated 18-year-old, Tulare County detective Mario Martin intentionally violated Neal’s Miranda rights by continuing to question Neal even after he asked for a lawyer nine times. After a night in jail, Neal sought Martin out and confessed twice. The state Supreme Court had to decide whether the confessions could still be used for impeachment purposes, as the court allowed in 1998′s People v. Peevy, 17 Cal.4th 1184, and whether Neal had confessed after voluntarily reinitiating contact with Martin, thereby making his statements admissible under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477. The U.S. Supreme Court takes up nearly the identical issues this fall in Missouri v. Seibert, 02-1371. The California justices decided Monday that Neal’s decision to recontact Martin was involuntary, based on the detective’s deliberate Miranda violation, Neal’s youth, inexperience and low intelligence. They also cited promises and threats made by Martin and the fact that Neal was isolated and deprived of food and water while in jail. “As a result,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in an opinion signed by all the justices, “we conclude not only that those confessions were inadmissible in the people’s case-in-chief because they were obtained in violation of Edwards, but also that they were inadmissible for any purpose because they were involuntary. “The consequence of the officer’s misconduct — the absolute inability to introduce the confessions at trial — is severe,” George continued, “but is intended to deter other officers from engaging in misconduct of this sort in the future.” In reaching their decision, the justices seemed to pay strong heed to the Sacramento-based California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which had pointed out in a defense-side amicus curiae that officers around the country are being taught to ignore Miranda in hope of getting impeachment evidence. In his concurrence, Justice Baxter called that “unconscionable” and said it goes against the rules of a “free society.” “The community must trust that [officers] do not operate by deliberately violating the very standards they are sworn to observe,” wrote Baxter, who was joined by Justices Carlos Moreno and Ming Chin. “When the police dishonor proper procedures, community respect for the police, and for the law itself, is undermined.” Practices encouraging officers to “exploit perceived legal loopholes,” he added, “tarnish the badge most officers respect and honor.” San Francisco solo practitioner Victor Morse, who represented Neal, said the ruling “demonstrates that the court is committed to protecting the constitutional rights of suspects in interrogation.” “The problem,” said Morse, an appellate specialist and adjunct professor at Golden Gate University School of Law, “was that police officers were ignoring the commands of prior Supreme Court rulings.” San Francisco solo John Philipsborn, who co-authored the CACJ brief with Boalt Hall School of Law Professor Charles Weisselberg, said the ruling marks “the first time that some members of the court have shown some real concerns that police culture and police training can influence what happens in encounters between citizens and police.” Weisselberg said the decision raises the stakes for police, “because if officers do question in deliberate violation of Miranda, those violations shall now be considered a significant part of the voluntariness test, and officers really run the risk that a statement taken in violation of Miranda may be deemed involuntary, the statement will be inadmissible and the fruits of that statement will be inadmissible.” Hallye Jordan, the Sacramento-based spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the ruling is under review. “The thing is the ruling is very limited,” she said. “It was to this case specifically.” The court declined to address the broader issue of how far can an officer go with this training. “We did not defend the officer’s conduct,” she added. “Our argument was that it was a subsequent confession after the initial interrogation. Irregardless, we believe in the wake of overwhelming evidence — that it was harmless error.”

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