“I Want A Lawyer” Actually Means Something

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, if you apply your principles only when it’s convenient, then they’re not really your principles–they’re more like hobbies.  Allowing the police to ignore the law has the added danger of eroding our civil liberties and making us vulnerable to abuses of power.

Texas courts sometimes find it very, very inconvenient to apply certain constitutional principles requiring them to throw out evidence when the police break the law to obtain it.  That’s especially true if the evidence is, say, the confession of a killer. So I was actually a little surprised earlier this week when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with a trial court’s decision to throw out a suspected killer’s videotaped confession because it was obtained in violation of his right to counsel (Texas v. Milton Wayne Gobert).

The law says that the police have to stop questioning a suspect when he asks for a lawyer. To keep the police from ignoring the law, the exclusionary rule requires courts to throw out illegally obtained evidence. Thus, when the police obtain a confession by continuing to interrogate a suspect after he’s invoked his right to counsel, the confession is inadmissible.

Comments to the Statesman’s coverage of the decision show that some folks want the confession to come in despite the fact that the police broke the law to obtain it. But making an exception just because we think a person is guilty and are offended by the crime he’s accused of would set a dangerous precedent. Next stop on this slippery slope is a place where a coerced “confession” is perfectly acceptable and more innocent people are going to prison.

I’m guessing this decision was as painful to make as it was correct. Kudos to Judge Bob Perkins for making the right decision in the first place, and to the Court of Criminal Appeals for upholding it.

1/29/10 Revision.
Changed category from “Cases of Note” to “Case Law.”