Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 6-5 en banc decision, ruled that the California Court of Appeals unreasonably applied then-established Supreme Court precedent when the lower court concluded that the defendant had to unambiguously invoke his right to counsel even before being read his Miranda rights. The Ninth Circuit made its ruling pursuant to a federal habeas petition under the AEDPA. Under the AEDPA, a prisoner is entitled to federal habeas relief if he can show that the state court’s adjudication of the merits of his claim was “contrary to” then- established Supreme Court precedent; was “an unreasonable application of” such law; or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” in light of the state court record. In ruling so, the Ninth Circuit held the requirement in Davis v. United States that a suspect must unambiguously invoke his right to counsel only applies after a suspect is given the Miranda warning, but not before.
In Sessoms v. Runnels, Tio Dinero Sessoms was involved in a home burglary in Sacramento in 1999 during which one of his accomplices committed a murder. Sessoms subsequently fled to Oklahoma. At the urging of his father, Sessoms turned himself in to police in Oklahoma.
Sessoms was interrogated by police officers in Oklahoma during which time he made the following ambiguous request for counsel:
“There wouldn't be any possibility that I could have a . . . lawyer present while we do this . . . . My dad asked me to ask you guys . . . uh, give me a lawyer.”
The interrogating officers immediately talked Sessoms out of having a lawyer present, suggesting that the presence of a lawyer would be futile because Sessoms' accomplices had divulged everything. The officers then read Sessoms his Miranda rights, which Sessoms immediately waived. Sessoms then provided information to the police that implicated him in the Sacramento crime. The incriminating information that Sessoms provided was later used against him at trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sessoms appealed his conviction, but the California Court of Appeals upheld the conviction on the grounds that Sessoms failed to clearly and ambiguously invoke his right to counsel. Sessoms then filed a federal habeas petition. A federal district court panel and a Ninth Circuit panel denied relief.
The Ninth Circuit en banc reversed and remanded Sessoms' case back to the state trial court for a new trial or for Sessoms to be released. First, the en banc panel disagreed with the lower courts' determination that Sessoms' request for counsel was ambiguous. The court found that the “meaning” behind Sessoms's request was that he clearly wanted a lawyer “then and there.” Second, the majority held that the California appellate court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it ruled that Sessom's invocation of his right to counsel had to be clear and unambiguous. The court ruled that that the Davis requirement only applies after a suspect has been read the Miranda warning but not before. The court has now held, for pre-Miranda warning situations, “after a knowing and voluntary waiver of the Miranda rights, law enforcement officers may continue questioning until and unless the suspect clearly requests an attorney.” Therefore, the Ninth Circuit seems to indicate that pre-Miranda invocations of right to counsel no longer need to be unambiguous to be valid.
However, the problem with the majority's holding – and something which would expose it to a reversal by the Supreme Court – is that court may be abusing its discretion under the AEDPA. The dissent points out that federal courts are supposed to give a deferential review to state appellate courts interpreting “clearly established” Supreme Court precedent. Under this standard, a federal court should not overturn a state court ruling if a reasonable juror could have interpreted Supreme Court case law in such a manner. Even more, the dissent highlights that a state court should not be reversed for unreasonably applying Supreme Court dicta.
According, the dissent notes that the Supreme Court has not clearly established precedent as to whether the Davis ambiguity requirement only applies in post-Miranda warning situations. Because the Supreme Court has not explicitly established precedent in that area, it was not unreasonable for the state court to rule that the Davis requirements apply prior to Miranda warnings.
This should be an interesting case to watch.