Police Liable for Failing to Heed Suspects' Rights to Silence, Court Rules

By Lookout Staff

Based on a case involving two murder suspects interrogated by Santa Monica and Los Angeles police in separate cases, the United States 9th District Court of Appeals ruled Monday that police officers can be exposed to civil liability for continuing to question suspects after they have invoked their right to remain silent.

In a closely watched case, the court ruled that the Southland police departments questioned suspects in a way that violated the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miranda vs. Arizona. The Miranda ruling established that defendants have a right to remain silent and also have to be warned that any statements made to investigators could be used against them in court.

The court's decision calls into question police departments' practices of continuing to question suspects after they have invoked their intentions to remain silent. In both cases that led to the decision, information from those post-invocation interviews was used to impeach the suspects when they testified at their own trials.

Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the ruling's "ramifications could be enormous" because it holds officers liable for following statewide training standards.

"This appeal isn't at all about whether the city is shielded, but whether the individual officers should be able to rely on their training to shield them from a law suit," Moutrie said. "It's not about whether the interrogation is wrong or whether the city is liable, but whether they (the officers) can be shielded.

"I argued as a city attorney that they be able to rely on, have confidence with and follow their training," Moutrie said.

The Santa Moncia case centered around officers' continued questioning of murder suspect James McNally after he invoked his right to remain silent and requested an attorney. He was assured that anything he said could not be used against him, but the information elicited from the continued interview was used to impeach his testimony and he was convicted of manslaughter.

Prior to this ruling, information elicited from such questioning was not admissible at trial, but could be used to impeach a suspect's testimony.

The LAPD case involved murder suspect James Bey, who was eventually convicted of manslaughter.

If the decision is not overturned, it will be returned to Federal District Court in Los Angeles, where McNally and a man suing LAPD in similar circumstances, can ask for damages.

Moutrie said she will present several options to the City Council, which must decide what course to take. The options include taking no action and letting the decision stand, asking the panel to reconsider, asking the full 9th District Court to review the ruling or petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing.