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Originally published May 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2009 at 9:23 AM

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Supreme Court eases limits on questioning suspects without lawyer

The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for police and prosecutors to question suspects, lifting some restrictions on when defendants can be interrogated without their lawyers present.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for police and prosecutors to question suspects, lifting some restrictions on when defendants can be interrogated without their lawyers present.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court overturned its 1986 opinion in a Michigan case, which forbade police from interrogating a defendant once he invoked his right to counsel at an arraignment or a similar proceeding.

That 1986 ruling has not only proved "unworkable," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, but its "marginal benefits are dwarfed by its substantial costs" in that some guilty defendants go free. Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In an angry dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the 1986 decision, said that, contrary to the majority's assertion, that decision protected "a fundamental right that the court now dishonors."

In effect, the court ruled that a Louisiana man, Jesse Jay Montejo, could not complain that police interacted with him outside the presence of his lawyer when he never verbally accepted the assistance of his court-appointed lawyer.

Montejo was arrested in the 2002 shooting death of Slidell businessman Louis Ferrari.

A court appointed a lawyer for him, but Montejo never said whether he wanted the lawyer's help. In the presence of police, he then wrote a letter to Ferrari's widow expressing remorse, which was used at his trial.

Montejo was sentenced to death.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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