With its historic ruling Tuesday abandoning its previous ban on the use of all coerced confessions in criminal trials, the U.S. Supreme Court opened a potentially troublesome new chapter in law enforcement.
At this point the potential for abuse is far more theoretical than real. Even so, a trend seems to be setting in and the public should be increasingly alert to the need to detect and deter police misconduct.In place of its previous blanket ban, the high court ruled 5-4 Tuesday that a coerced confession does not automatically bar a guilty verdict as long as other evidence is sufficient to convict a suspect.
By taking this stance, the Supreme Court is merely extending to improperly-obtained confessions a harmless-error rule that it already has been applying in a variety of other circumstances. Among those other circumstances are the erroneous admission of evidence obtained from an unreasonable search and seizure, the impermissible comments of the prosecutor and trial judge on a criminal defendant's failure to testify, the erroneous admission of a non-testifying co-defendant's confession, and the erroneous admission of a confession obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment's right to legal counsel.
In this week's ruling, then, the Supreme Court is establishing a more uniform standard for assessing the impact of conduct that violates the right of the accused.
The danger, though, is that as this standard becomes more uniform it could lull the police into becoming lax in handling suspects by making lawmen's jobs easier and easier.
For many years, the hands of American lawmen have been tied by a long series of nitpicking court rulings that exalted the rights of defendants above the rights of their victims. A reversal of this trend has been long overdue. But the public can also suffer if the pendulum is now allowed to swing too far in the opposite direction.