Argument Preview: Corley v. US
Stanford student Daniel Matro previews this morning’s first argument, Corley v. US (07-10441). Additional information on the case is available from SCOTUSwiki, here.
In a series of cases in the 1940s and 1950s, the Supreme Court, acting pursuant to its supervisory authority over the federal courts, developed the McNabb-Mallory rule, which protects an arrested person's right to be promptly presented before a magistrate by excluding, in federal prosecutions, any confession made during a period of unnecessary presentment delay. Alarmed by the burden this exclusionary rule placed on law enforcement, Congress revised the law governing admissibility of confessions in 1968 with the enactment of 18 U.S.C. § 3501. In Corley v. United States, the Supreme Court will consider whether Congress intended in 18 U.S.C. § 3501 to abrogate the McNabb-Mallory rule entirely or rather merely limit its application to confessions taken more than six hours after arrest and before presentment.
The Supreme Court first addressed the right to prompt presentment in the 1943 case McNabb v. United States. In McNabb, the Court held inadmissible confessions that it found to have been obtained in violation of the defendants' statutory right to prompt presentment. Three years later, the statutes upon which the Court relied in McNabb were superseded by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(a). The current version of Rule 5(a), which is substantially similar to the original, requires that "[a] person making an arrest within the United States must take the defendant without unnecessary delay before a magistrate judge." In 1957, in Mallory v. United States, the Court reaffirmed McNabb and held that delay for the purpose of interrogation is "unnecessary delay" under Rule 5(a). The exclusionary remedy it applied became known as the McNabb-Mallory rule.
In response to the McNabb-Mallory rule (and the rule promulgated in Miranda v. Arizona), Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. § 3501 as part of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Section 3501(a) provides that, in federal prosecutions, "a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given." Section 3501(b) sets out a non-exclusive list of factors to be considered by the trial judge in determining voluntariness under the totality of the circumstances, one of which is the time elapsed between arrest and presentment if the confession was made during that time. Section 3501(c) addresses the circumstances under which presentment delay alone may render confessions inadmissible: a confession made by a person in police custody after arrest "shall not be inadmissible solely because of delay in bringing such person before a magistrate . . . if such confession is found by the trial judge to have been made voluntarily and if the weight to be given the confession is left to the jury and if such confession was made or given by such person within six hours immediately following his arrest." Section 3501(c) further provides that the six-hour time limitation shall not apply in cases involving delays beyond six hours if the trial judge finds the delay "reasonable considering the means of transportation and the distance to be traveled to the nearest available such magistrate."
Section 3501(c) thus carves out a six-hour safe harbor period from the McNabb-Mallory rule: any confession made during this time may not be deemed inadmissible solely because of a presentment delay. Less clear "“ and the subject of a longstanding circuit split "“ is whether the McNabb-Mallory rule survives as a basis for excluding confessions made beyond the six hour period. The difficulty stems from the tension between § 3501(a), which appears to make voluntariness the sole non-constitutional criterion for admissibility of confessions in federal prosecutions, and § 3501(c), which arguably contemplates the exclusion of even voluntary confessions made more than six hours after arrest if the delay is unreasonable. In 1993, the Court granted certiorari in a case raising this issue, United States v. Alvarez-Sanchez, but ultimately disposed of the case on other grounds.
Corley v. United States presents the Court with another opportunity to resolve the question. At 8:00 a.m. on September 17, 2003, petitioner Johnnie Corley was arrested after law enforcement officials identified him as a suspect in a June 2003 robbery of a Pennsylvania credit union. After his arrest but before being presented to a magistrate, Corley was taken to a local police station, then to a Philadelphia hospital for treatment of a hand injury he sustained while attempting to resist arrest, and finally to the FBI office in Philadelphia. There, officers began to discuss with him the bank robbery at 3:50 p.m., nearly eight hours after the arrest. Corley signed a waiver of rights form at 5:07 p.m. and gave an oral confession shortly thereafter. But when asked to put his confession in writing, he said he was tired and asked to continue the following day. The interrogation resumed at 10:30 a.m. the next day. Corley signed a written confession and was brought before a federal magistrate judge at 1:30 p.m., 29.5 hours after arrest.
Corley moved to exclude his oral and written confessions on the ground that they were obtained in violation of Rule 5(a). The district court judge found that both confessions were voluntary and denied the motion. After a jury trial, Corley was convicted of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery and armed bank robbery. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. Relying on the Third Circuit's 1974 decision in Government of Virgin Islands v. Gereau, the panel majority held that § 3501 makes voluntariness the sole criterion for admissibility of a confession, replacing Rule 5(a)'s "unnecessary delay" standard. It interpreted § 3501(c) as merely instructing that an unnecessary delay in presentment, standing alone, cannot render a confession involuntary if the delay is less than six hours. Thus, in the court's view, voluntary statements are admissible even if obtained outside the six-hour time period in § 3501(c) as a result of unreasonable delay. The majority acknowledged that several circuits had rejected this interpretation, and remarked that, "[w]ere we writing on a clean slate, we might agree." But it deemed itself bound by Gereau's "plausible" reading of § 3501(c).
In dissent, Judge Sloviter, relying on McNabb, Mallory, and Rule 5(a), argued that "even a voluntary statement may be excluded if the presentment delay is unreasonable or unnecessary." In her view, § 3501(c) merely "excised the first six hours after arrest or detention from the scope of the McNabb-Mallory exclusionary rule."
Petition for Certiorari
Corley filed a petition for certiorari, which was granted on October 1, 2008.
Corley's petition advanced several arguments. First, Corley argued that the Court should grant the writ to resolve an entrenched 5-3 circuit split, and noted that the Court had previously agreed to hear a case raising the same issue. To highlight the importance of the issue, Corley observed that it can potentially arise in every federal criminal case. And to underscore the need for uniformity, he pointed out that the presentment rules which federal agents must follow currently depend on the federal district in which they operate.
Corley also argued that his case presents an ideal vehicle for resolution of the circuit split: there are no disputes over the timing of the confessions or any other essential facts; the only reason for the delay in presentment following Corley's medical treatment was the agents' desire to question him and elicit a confession; and the confession was the primary evidence linking Corley to the robbery.
Corley further argued that the Third Circuit's interpretation cannot be reconciled with the text of § 3501(c), pursuant to which the admissibility of a confession expressly hinges on both voluntariness and presentment within six hours of arrest. The Third Circuit's assertion that admissibility depends only on voluntariness, he maintained, renders § 3501(c) superfluous. Instead, the best interpretation of § 3501(c) is that it simply creates a six-hour safe harbor from the McNabb-Mallory rule but does not eliminate it.
In its brief in opposition, the United States acknowledged the circuit split but argued that the Court's review was unnecessary because "the conflict has generated relatively few decisions in recent years," and it affects the outcome in only a very small category of cases. In any event, the government suggested, "other legal rules (such as Miranda) largely protect against the abuses at which McNabb and Mallory were originally aimed."
Furthermore, the government defended the Third Circuit's holding that § 3501 displaces the McNabb-Mallory rule, asserting that § 3501(a) expressly makes voluntariness the sole non-constitutional test for determining the admissibility of confessions in federal prosecutions. The government insisted that the negative implication of § 3501(c) "“ "that there must be some circumstances in which a delay in presentment will render suppression appropriate regardless of whether a confession was voluntary" "“ could not override the plain language of § 3501(a) and, regardless, could be construed in a manner consistent with it.
In an amicus brief in support of Corley's petition for certiorari, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) emphasized the need for a bright-line rule to give clear guidance to law enforcement. Reading § 3501(c) to create a six-hour safe harbor, it argued, provides clarity and consistency, whereas the Third Circuit's interpretation requires difficult and uncertain determinations of voluntariness in every case involving a challenged confession.
In his brief on the merits, Corley expands on his petition's argument that the plain text of § 3501(c) creates an exception to the McNabb-Mallory rule for statements made within six hours of arrest but leaves the rule intact for statements made after that time period. Corley argues that this interpretation is supported by five principles of statutory construction. First, interpreting § 3501 as making voluntariness the sole criterion of admissibility renders § 3501(c) superfluous and thereby violates the rule of construction that courts should give effect to every provision in a statute when possible. Second, to the extent that subsections (a) and (c) are in tension, the specific provision in § 3501(c) controls over the general statement in § 3501(a) on the issue of inadmissibility due solely to presentment delay. Third, to avoid rendering § 3501(c) superfluous, the Third Circuit had to substitute the word "involuntary" for "inadmissible" in the phrase "inadmissible solely because of delay" and had to add the word "otherwise" before "voluntary[il]y," in conflict with the principle that statutes not be rewritten to reach a particular interpretation. Fourth, to the extent that either reading is plausible, the Third Circuit's interpretation should be rejected because, by narrowing the grounds on which a court may find a confession involuntary, it raises constitutional problems. Fifth, the statute should be interpreted in accordance with its text and structure, both of which make clear that voluntariness is not the sole criterion in § 3501(c)
Corley also argues that the legislative history of § 3501 confirms his interpretation. According to Corley, the originally proposed text of § 3501(c) clearly abrogated the McNabb-Mallory rule, but that version encountered significant opposition and was amended before passage in a compromise that legislators understood as partially preserving the rule. Sections 3501(a) and (b) were understood to overrule Miranda, not McNabb and Mallory.
Corley further argues that his interpretation will be beneficial to law enforcement and the courts because it establishes an easily administrable bright-line rule. He also contends that the McNabb-Mallory rule, as preserved by § 3501(c), is a "necessary adjunct" to Miranda, ensuring that presentment delay itself is not used as a means to pressure arrested persons to waive their rights. (NACDL's amicus brief in support of Corley at the merits stage presents this argument in greater detail.) Finally, Corley concludes that, because his confessions were taken outside the six-hour safe harbor and because the delay in presentment was unnecessary and unreasonable, his confessions were inadmissible.
In its brief on the merits, the United States begins with the statute's text. The government argues that § 3501(a) plainly requires the admission of voluntary confessions. At the same time, it contends, § 3501(c) does not mandate the exclusion of any confession. Noting the Court's reluctance to adopt exclusionary rules in light of their great societal costs, the government emphasizes that "Congress should not be presumed to have adopted such a rule without explicitly saying so."
The government next argues that § 3501(c)'s "negative implication," from which Corley derives an exclusionary rule, cannot override § 3501(a)'s affirmative command. It also suggests that consistent application of the negative-implication principle produces untenable results, because it would mean that § 3501(c)'s narrow travel-related exception would be the only excuse that could render a delay of more than six hours "reasonable" or "necessary." And it makes the case that "Federal Rule of Evidence 402 eliminated [any] remaining vestige of McNabb-Mallory."
The government also contests Corley's use of principles of statutory construction. First, it argues that the interpretive principle that a specific provision trumps a general one is inapplicable because there is no conflict between subsections (a) and (c). Second, § 3501(c) is not superfluous simply because it provides a clarification of the law of admissibility in one particular situation that is identical to the result produced by applying the general voluntariness rule. And it contends that there is no need to rewrite § 3501(c) to see it as a reiteration of § 3501(a)'s command of voluntariness as applied to a particular situation. Third, it rejects Corley's claim that the Third Circuit's interpretation is constitutionally doubtful, insisting that Corley cannot identity any situation in which that reading raises serious constitutional concerns.
The government further argues that although the text alone answers the question presented, making resort to legislative history unnecessary, that history also supports its position. Among other points, the government maintains that the amendment to the original version of § 3501(c) was not a compromise that partially preserved the McNabb-Mallory rule, but a minor change intended to alleviate any constitutional problems were the bill interpreted to preclude suppression of a confession taken after a delay of several days.
Finally, in response to Corley's policy arguments, the United States asserts that "in light of Miranda, Fourth Amendment restraints, and voluntariness doctrine, no necessity exists for a non-constitutional suppression rule based solely on delayed presentment."
In his reply brief, Corley first argues that § 3501(c) preserves the McNabb-Mallory rule not by "negative implication" but by its express terms. Section 3501(c) provides that confessions "shall not be inadmissible solely because of delay" "“ that is, the McNabb-Mallory rule shall not apply "“ when two conditions are met: the confession is made voluntarily and within six hours of arrest. The government's insistence that voluntariness is the sole test for admissibility of confessions does not merely render some of § 3501(c) harmlessly redundant, as it claims, but renders the entire provision a nullity, and requires an unacceptable rewriting of the text.
Corley also rejects the government's argument that Federal Rule of Evidence 402 abolishes the McNabb-Mallory rule, asserting, among other things, that the Advisory Committee Note to Rule 402 expressly excepts evidence excluded under McNabb-Mallory from its general principle of admissibility. In addition, Corley insists that the government fails to rebut the legislative history's "clear confirmation" of his view, and emphasizes that the government's reading of § 3501(c) as a "voluntariness safe harbor" finds "no support whatsoever" in that history. And, discussing the policy rationales for a decision in his favor, Corley argues that the "prompt presentment right is broader than the rights guarded by Miranda" and cannot be safeguarded by Miranda warnings alone.