updated 6/28/2004 2:06:10 PM ET 2004-06-28T18:06:10

The Supreme Court warned police on Monday to stop using a strategy intended to extract confessions from criminal suspects before telling them of their right to remain silent.

The court, on a 5-4 vote, said that deliberately questioning a suspect twice — the first time without reading the Miranda warning — is usually improper.

Criminal defense attorneys and civil libertarians had complained that strategy was being used to get around the Supreme Court’s landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling, which requires that suspects in custody be told they have the right to remain silent.

The court had considered the treatment of murder suspect Patrice Seibert. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the two-step interrogation process used in her case was improper — a decision upheld by the nation’s highest court.

Such questioning can be successful because suspects may be more willing to talk before they’re told they have a right to remain silent. And when told of their rights later, they may not realize their first confession can be used against them.

Seibert was convicted of plotting to set a 1997 fire that killed a teenager who had been staying at the family trailer in Rolla, Mo., a rural town in the Ozarks. Police said she arranged to have her home burned to cover up the death of her 12-year-old son, who had had cerebral palsy, in order to avoid neglect allegations.

Justice David H. Souter, writing for himself and three other liberal justices, said that the practice is worrisome because questioning tactics are taught at national training sessions.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed with those four that the interrogation technique “undermines the Miranda warning and obscures its meaning.”

But the court left the door open for police to be able to use some confessions obtained after double interviews.

Kennedy said that police must be able to prove that the interrogation was not done “in a calculated way to undermine the Miranda warning.”

In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said it would be tough for lower courts to determine if officers had gone too far. She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

“In virtually every two-state interrogation case ... courts will be forced to conduct the kind of difficult, state-of-mind inquiry that we normally take pains to avoid,” she wrote.

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Dealt a blow to the Bush administration's war on terror, ruling that both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals seized as potential terrorists can challenge their treatment in U.S. courts.
  • Agreed to hear the Bush administration’s appeal of a medical marijuana case it lost last year involving two California women who say marijuana is the only drug that helps alleviate their chronic pain and other medical problems.
  • Refused to consider whether disabled moviegoers must be given better seats than the front-row accommodations they’re provided in many new stadium-seating theaters.
    Justices had been asked to decide if a landmark disabilities law requires better accommodations, and if theater owners can be ordered to make after-the-fact changes.
  • Agreed to consider a case that could clarify when governments can tax Indian property.
    Justices announced that they would hear arguments in a case involving the tiny city of Sherrill, N.Y., and the state of New York, and the Oneida Indian Nation. The governments had urged the court to review a lower court’s decision barring the taxation of a textile plant and a gas station-convenience store owned by the tribe.
    Refused to stop a national class-action lawsuit over the safety of minivan air bags.
    Oklahoma’s top court had ruled that DaimlerChrysler Corp. could face a lawsuit by up to 1 million owners of 1996 and 1997 minivans, in Oklahoma court but under a Michigan law.
  • Agreed to consider the standard for proving securities fraud in a case involving a maker of asthma and allergy medicines. The stock of Dura Pharmaceuticals Inc. plummeted 47 percent in one day after the company announced in February 1998 that it expected lower revenues because of slower-than-expected sales of the antibiotic Ceclor CD.

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