Defendants' Rights Go Under the Microscope

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Two major cases before the United States Supreme Court could determine the criminal-rights legacy of the conservative-leaning Court headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. On Monday, the Justices decided to hear the appeal of a Florida Supreme Court case, which found that a suspect couldn't be detained simply on the strength of an anonymous tip that he or she is carrying an illegal firearm. Also on Monday, the Clinton administration asked the Court to take up a case that could potentially overturn the so-called Miranda ruling, which demands that defendants be read their rights before they give statements to the police. The administration is alarmed over a potential challenge to Miranda, and wants to confront any erosion of civil liberties under its watch. "This is a pretty conservative court on the rights of the accused," notes TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "What we're looking at is an opportunity for them to get tougher on criminal procedural issues."

In both instances, the issues are thorny. The Florida case weighs the public interest served by allowing police broad power in cracking down on illegal firearms against an individual's constitutional protection from unwarranted search and seizure. Criminal-rights activists contend that a ruling in law enforcement's favor will in esssence allow police to search and detain whomever they please, as long as they say they received a tip that the suspect was carrying a gun. In the other case, the Fourth District of Illinois upheld a 31-year-old federal statute — passed by Congress just two years after the Miranda decision — that said voluntarily given confessions are admissible evidence, even when the accused aren't read their rights. The law had never before been tested in court, but the Fourth District opined that Miranda was a ruling on procedure, and not a constitutional interpretation, and therefore need not be upheld. "Despite the ambiguity, courts around the country basically agreed with Miranda and have not been looking to force the issue," says Cohen. "The Fourth Circuit Court is very conservative and shocked the country by enforcing the statute." Of the two cases, says Cohen, the Florida case presents a better chance for the Supreme Court to "continue to chip away at the landmark rulings of the '60s and '70s."