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Prosecutors Win Edict on Use of Confessions : State Supreme Court Reverses Bird-Era Decision That Set Rigid Standards Protecting Defendants

Times Staff Writer

In a major victory for prosecutors, the California Supreme Court on Monday abandoned a state constitutional prohibition against the use of improperly obtained confessions, ruling that such statements may be used to challenge a defendant’s testimony at trial.

By a 4 to 3 vote, the new and more conservative court rejected a decision made early last year under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird that had reaffirmed a milestone 1976 ruling barring any use of unlawfully obtained statements in the courtroom.

The justices said Monday that under Proposition 8, the Victims’ Bill of Rights initiative passed by the voters in 1982, state courts must follow a less-restrictive U.S. Supreme Court decision that permits use of such statements to impeach a defendant’s credibility if he chooses to take the stand.

Majority Viewpoint

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“It seems very likely that Proposition 8 was crafted for the very purpose, among others, of abrogating cases such as the (1976 ruling), which had elevated the procedural rights of the criminal defendant above the level required by the federal Constitution,” Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas wrote for the court.

The justices, in their decision, followed the lead of courts in 35 other states that have adopted the federal standard since it was issued in 1971.

In doing so, they overturned a decision to the contrary made during a flurry of rulings by the court the day before Bird and two other justices, defeated in the November, 1986, election left office.

The new court, with three appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian replacing the three departing justices, had agreed to reconsider the ruling at the request of state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and other prosecutors.

Monday’s decision represented a sharp setback for defense lawyers and others who had urged the court to invoke independent state constitutional grounds to impose stricter rules on the admission of confessions than are required by the federal high court.

In dissent, Justice Stanley Mosk, a vigorous advocate of state court independence and author of the 1976 decision the justices discarded, said the less-restrictive federal ruling “practically invites unlawful conduct” by police.

“By contrast, a broad exclusionary rule deters such improper police conduct by denying the prosecution any benefit that might flow therefrom,” Mosk said.

Three Deukmejian appointees--Justices Edward A. Panelli, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman--joined with Lucas, the governor’s choice to succeed Bird, to form the majority in Monday’s decision. Lucas and Panelli had dissented when the court reached a contrary decision in a 5 to 2 ruling last year.

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Dissenting Justices

Justice Allen E. Broussard, an appointee of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., and Justice John A. Arguelles, a Deukmejian appointee, joined the dissenting opinion by Mosk, who was named to the court by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr.

Van de Kamp praised the ruling, saying it would “discourage perjury” by allowing prosecutors to challenge a defendant’s trial testimony with previous statements that were voluntarily given to police but were obtained in violation of the landmark 1966 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Miranda vs. Arizona.

The Miranda ruling, as it is known, requires officers to warn suspects in custody of their rights to silence and to legal counsel before answering questions.

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Van de Kamp noted that police will still be required to issue Miranda warnings, but that the decision Monday “ends the practice of defendants lying on the stand knowing that their non-Mirandized prior statements cannot be used to expose their lying.”

Effect of Rule Cited

Lawyers in the case said the ruling would probably affect a number of past decisions by the court that imposed stricter rules on the use of a defendant’s statements than required by the federal courts.

George Schraer of San Diego, an attorney representing a defendant in the case, called the ruling “Kafkaesque,” saying it would invite police to continue to question suspects who had invoked their right to silence.

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“This ruling is very disappointing,” said Schraer. “There’s nothing now to restrain an officer when a suspect refuses to talk. It encourages police to go ahead and question them in the hope it could be used to impeach a defendant at trial.”

The case before the court involved Michael Dennis May, convicted of burglary, robbery and raping a woman at gunpoint in Santa Barbara in 1983.

Police who interrogated May about the rape and other crimes advised him of his rights to silence and to counsel, as required under the Miranda rule.

Defendant’s Statements

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May replied that he wanted to have a lawyer present, but officers continued to question him in violation of the rule. The suspect then made statements officers considered conflicting and potentially incriminating.

When May came to trial, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge James M. Slater agreed with defense lawyers that the statements could not be used against May directly as evidence. But the judge held that statements would be admissible to challenge May’s truthfulness if he took the witness stand.

Judge Slater found that the state anti-crime initiative required California courts to follow a 1971 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court saying that, even if obtained in violation of the Miranda rule, a voluntary statement made by a suspect could be used to impeach his testimony in court.

May, faced with the prospect of being cross-examined about his pretrial statements to police, elected not to testify and was convicted. A state Court of Appeal upheld the trial ruling in September, 1985.

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May then brought the case to the California Supreme Court, saying the lower court decisions conflicted with the ruling by the justices in 1976 barring any use of improperly obtained statements.

Rehearing Granted

On Jan. 2, 1987, the court under Bird upheld May, but two months later the new court voted to rehear the case.

The court majority Monday found that the voters, in adopting the “truth-in-evidence” provisions of the 1982 initiative requiring the use of all “relevant evidence” in criminal proceedings, likely intended to nullify judicial decisions such as the 1976 ruling that barred evidence solely to deter police misconduct in violating a suspect’s state constitutional rights.

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Lucas noted that the justices had reached a similar conclusion in a 1985 ruling saying that Proposition 8 required state courts to follow less-restrictive federal rulings in the use of evidence gathered in improper police searches.

The majority rejected defense contentions that the voters, in adopting the initiative, intended to exempt judicially created “privileges” against self-incrimination that would bar the use of improperly obtained statements to impeach a defendant’s credibility at trial.

The initiative, the court said, preserved only legislatively created rules of privilege, such as the barriers to the use of statements made between an attorney and client or a physician and patient.


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