Escobedo v. Illinois: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

The Right to Counsel During an Interrogation

Man with handcuffs in interrogation

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Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine when criminal suspects should have access to an attorney. The majority found that someone suspected of a crime has the right to speak with an attorney during a police interrogation under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Fast Facts: Escobedo v. Illinois

  • Case Argued: April 29, 1964
  • Decision Issued: June 22, 1964
  • Petitioner: Danny Escobedo
  • Respondent: Illinois
  • Key Questions: When should a criminal suspect be allowed to consult with an attorney under the Sixth Amendment?
  • Majority: Justices Warren, Black, Douglas, Brennan, Goldberg
  • Dissenting: Justices Clark, Harlan, Stewart, White
  • Ruling: A suspect is entitled to an attorney during an interrogation if it is more than a general inquiry into an unsolved crime, the police intend to elicit incriminating statements, and the right to counsel has been denied

Facts of the Case

In the early morning hours of January 20, 1960 police interrogated Danny Escobedo in relation to a fatal shooting. Police released Escobedo after he refused to make a statement. Ten days later, police interrogated Benedict DiGerlando, a friend of Escobedo, who told them that Escobedo had fired the shots that killed Escobedo’s brother-in-law. Police arrested Escobedo later that evening. They handcuffed him and told him en route to the police station that they had sufficient evidence against him. Escobedo asked to speak to an attorney. Police later testified that although Escobedo was not formally in custody when he requested an attorney, he was not allowed to leave out of his own free will.

Escobedo’s attorney arrived at the police station shortly after police began interrogating Escobedo. The attorney repeatedly asked to speak with his client but was turned away. During the interrogation, Escobedo asked to speak with his counsel several times. Each time, the police made no attempt to retrieve Escobedo’s attorney. Instead they told Escobedo that his attorney did not wish to speak with him. During the interrogation, Escobedo was handcuffed and left standing. Police later testified that he seemed nervous and agitated. At one point during the interrogation, police allowed Escobedo to confront DiGerlando. Escobedo admitted knowledge of the crime and exclaimed that DiGerlando had killed the victim.

Escobedo’s attorney moved to suppress statements made during this interrogation before and during trial. The judge denied the motion both times.

Constitutional Issues

Under the Sixth Amendment, do suspects have a right to counsel during interrogation? Did Escobedo have a right to speak with his attorney even though he had not been formally indicted?

Arguments

An attorney representing Escobedo argued that police had violated his right to due process when they prevented him from speaking with an attorney. The statements Escobedo made to police, after being denied counsel, should not be allowed into evidence, the attorney argued.

An attorney on behalf of Illinois argued that states retain their right to oversee criminal procedure under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If the Supreme Court were to find the statements inadmissible due to a Sixth Amendment violation, the Supreme Court would be exerting control over criminal procedure. A judgement could violate the clear separation of powers under federalism, the attorney argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice Arthur J. Goldberg delivered the 5-4 decision. The Court found that Escobedo had been denied access to an attorney at a critical point in the judicial process—he time between arrest and indictment. The moment in which he was denied access to an attorney was the point at which the investigation had ceased to be a "general investigation" into an "unsolved crime." Escobedo had become more than a suspect and was entitled to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

Justice Goldberg argued that the specific circumstances in the case at hand were illustrative of a denial of access to counsel. The following elements were present:

  1. The investigation had become more than a "general inquiry into an unsolved crime."
  2. The suspect had been taken into custody and interrogated with the intent to elicit incriminating statements.
  3. The suspect had been denied access to counsel and police had not properly informed the suspect of the right to remain silent.

On behalf of the majority, Justice Goldberg wrote that it was important for suspects to have access to an attorney during interrogation because it is the likeliest time for the suspect to confess. Suspects should be advised of their rights before making incriminating statements, he argued.

Justice Goldberg noted that if advising someone of their rights decreases the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, then “there is something very wrong with that system.” He wrote that the effectiveness of a system should not be judged by the number of confessions police are able to secure.

Justice Goldberg wrote:

“We have learned the lesson of history, ancient and modern, that a system of criminal law enforcement which comes to depend on the "confession" will, in the long run, be less reliable and more subject to abuses than a system which depends on extrinsic evidence independently secured through skillful investigation.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justices Harlan, Stewart, and White authored separate dissents. Justice Harlan wrote that the majority had come up with a rule that “seriously and unjustifiably fetters perfectly legitimate methods of criminal law enforcement.” Justice Stewart argued that the start of the judicial process is marked by indictment or arraignment, not custody or questioning. By requiring access to counsel during interrogation, the Supreme Court jeopardized the integrity of the judicial process, Justice Stewart wrote. Justice White expressed concern that the decision could jeopardize law enforcement investigations. Police should not have to ask suspects to waive their right to counsel before statements made by the suspects can be considered admissible, he argued.

Impact

The ruling built upon Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney to the states. While Escobedo v. Illinois affirmed an individual's right to an attorney during an interrogation, it did not establish a clear timeline for the moment at which that right comes into play. Justice Goldberg outlined specific factors that needed to be present to show that someone's right to counsel had been denied. Two years after the ruling in Escobedo, the Supreme Court handed down Miranda v. Arizona. In Miranda, the Supreme Court used the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to require officers to notify suspects of their rights, including the right to an attorney, as soon as they are taken into custody.

Sources

  • Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964).