Missouri v. Seibert: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Two Confessions, One Miranda Warning

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Missouri v. Seibert (2004) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether a popular police technique for eliciting confessions violated constitutional protections. The Court ruled that the practice of questioning a suspect to the point of confession, notifying them of their rights, and having them voluntarily waive their rights to confess a second time was unconstitutional.

Fast Facts: Missouri v. Seibert

  • Case Argued: December 9, 2003
  • Decision Issued: June 28, 2004
  • Petitioner: Missouri
  • Respondent: Patrice Seibert
  • Key Questions: Is it constitutional for police to question a suspect un-Mirandized, obtain a confession, read the suspect his Miranda rights, and then ask the suspect to repeat the confession?
  • Majority: Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer 
  • Dissenting: Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Thomas
  • Ruling: The second confession in this scenario, after the Miranda rights had been read to the suspect, cannot be used against someone in court. This technique employed by police undermines Miranda and reduces its efficacy.

Facts of the Case

Patrice Seibert’s 12-year-old son, Johnathan, died in his sleep. Johnathan had cerebral palsy and had sores on his body when he died. Seibert feared she would be arrested for abuse if anyone found the body. Her teenage sons and their friends decided to burn their mobile home with Johnathan’s body inside. They left Donald Rector, a boy who had been living with Seibert, inside the trailer to make it appear like an accident. Rector died in the fire.

Five days later, Officer Kevin Clinton arrested Seibert but did not read her Miranda warnings at the request of another officer, Richard Hanrahan. At the police station, Officer Hanrahan questioned Seibert for close to 40 minutes without advising her of her rights under Miranda. During his questioning, he repeatedly squeezed her arm and said things like “Donald was also to die in his sleep.” Seibert eventually admitted knowledge of Donald’s death. She was given a 20-minute coffee and cigarette break before Officer Hanrahan turned on a tape recorder and notified her of her Miranda rights. He then prompted her to repeat what she had allegedly confessed to pre-recording.

Seibert was charged with first-degree murder. The trial court and the Supreme Court of Missouri entered different findings concerning the legality of the two confessions, one Miranda warning system. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Constitutional Issues

Under Miranda v. Arizona, police officers must advise suspects of their rights prior to questioning in order for self-incriminating statements to be admissible in court. Can a police officer intentionally withhold Miranda warnings and question a suspect, knowing that their statements cannot be used in court? Can that officer then Mirandize the suspect and have them repeat a confession as long as they waive their rights?

Arguments

An attorney representing Missouri argued that the Court should follow its previous ruling in Oregon v. Elstad. Under Oregon v. Elstad, a defendant can confess pre-Miranda warnings, and later wave Miranda rights to confess again. The attorney argued that the officers in Seibert were acting no differently than the officers in Elstad. Seibert’s second confession occurred after she had been Mirandized and therefore should be admissible in trial.

An attorney representing Seibert argued that both the pre-warning statements and post-warning statements Seibert made to the police should be suppressed. The attorney focused on the post-warning statements, arguing that they should be inadmissible under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. Under Wong Sun v. United States, evidence uncovered as a result of an illegal action cannot be used in court. Seibert’s statements, given post-Miranda warnings but after a lengthy un-Mirandized conversation, should not be allowed in court, the attorney argued.

Plurality Opinion

Justice Souter delivered the plurality opinion. The “technique,” as Justice Souter referred to it, of “unwarned and warned phases” of questioning created a new challenge for Miranda. Justice Souter noted that although he had no statistics on the popularity of this practice, it was not confined to the police department mentioned in this case.

Justice Souter looked to the intent of the technique. “The object of question-first is to render Miranda warnings ineffective by waiting for a particularly advantageous time to give them, after the suspect has already confessed.” Justice Souter added that the question, in this case, was whether the timing of the warnings made them less effective. Hearing warnings after a confession would not lead a person to believe they could truly remain silent. The two-step questioning was designed to undermine Miranda.

Justice Souter wrote:

“After all, the reason that question-first is catching on is as obvious as its manifest purpose, which is to get a confession the suspect would not make if he understood his rights at the outset; the sensible underlying assumption is that with one confession in hand before the warnings, the interrogator can count on getting its duplicate, with trifling additional trouble.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dissented, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice O'Connor's dissent focused on Oregon v. Elstad, the 1985 case that ruled on a two-step interrogation, similar to the one in Missouri v. Seibert. Justice O’Connor argued that under Elstad, the Court should have focused on whether or not the first and second interrogations were coercive. A court could gauge the coerciveness of an un-Mirandized interrogation by looking at the location, time-lapsed between Mirandized and un-Mirandized statements, and changes between interrogators.

Impact

A plurality occurs when a majority of justices do not share a single opinion. Instead, at least five justices agree on one outcome. The plurality opinion in Missouri v. Seibert created what some call an “effects test.” Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed with four other justices that Seibert's confession was inadmissible but authored a separate opinion. In his concurrence he developed his own test called the “bad faith test.” Justice Kennedy focused on whether officers had acted in bad faith when choosing not to Mirandize Seibert during the first round of questioning. Lower courts have split on which test should apply when officers use the “technique” described in Missouri v. Seibert. This is just one of the cases between 2000 and 2010 that addressed questions about how to apply Miranda v. Arizona in specific situations.

Sources

  • Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004).
  • Rogers, Johnathan L. “A Jurisprudence of Doubt: Missouri v. Seibert, United States v. Patane, and the Supreme Court's Continued Confusion About the Constitutional Status of Miranda.” Oklahoma Law Review, vol. 58, no. 2, 2005, pp. 295–316., digitalcommons.law.ou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1253&context=olr.