322 U.S. 65 (1944), United States v. Mitchell

Citation:322 U.S. 65, 64 S.Ct. 896, 88 L.Ed. 1140
Party Name:United States v. Mitchell
Case Date:April 24, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

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322 U.S. 65 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 896, 88 L.Ed. 1140

United States



United States Supreme Court

April 24, 1944




1. Promptly and spontaneously after a housebreaking suspect had been taken into custody by police officers and had arrived at the police station, he admitted his guilt and consented to the officers' recovering stolen property from his home. Held that the admission of guilt and the property thus recovered were admissible in evidence in a criminal prosecution in a federal court, and that the admissibility of the evidence was not affected by the subsequent illegal detention of the suspect for eight days before arraignment. McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, distinguished. P. 69.

2. The power of this Court to establish rules governing the admissibility of evidence in the federal courts is not to be used to discipline law enforcement officers. P. 70.

138 F.2d 426 reversed.

Certiorari, 321 U.S. 756, to review reversals, in two cases, of convictions of housebreaking and larceny.

FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under each of two indictments for housebreaking and larceny, the defendant Mitchell was separately tried and convicted, but his convictions were reversed by the Court of Appeals, 138 F.2d 426, solely on the ground that the admission of testimony of Mitchell's oral confessions and of stolen property secured from his home through his consent was barred by our decision in McNabb v. United

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States, 318 U.S. 332. In view of the importance to federal criminal justice of proper application of the McNabb doctrine, we brought the case here. 321 U.S. 756.

Practically the whole body of the law of evidence governing criminal trials in the federal courts has been judge-made. See United States v. Reid, 12 How. 361, and Funk v. United States, 290 U.S. 371. Naturally these evidentiary rules have not remained unchanged. They have adapted themselves to progressive notions of relevance in the pursuit of truth through adversary litigation, and have reflected dominant conceptions of standards appropriate for the effective and civilized administration of law. As this Court, when making a new departure in this field, took occasion to say a decade ago, "The public policy of one generation may not, under changed conditions, be the public policy of another." Funk v. United States, supra, at 381. The McNabb decision was merely another expression of this historic tradition, whereby rules of evidence for criminal trials in the federal courts are made a part of living law, and not treated as a mere collection of wooden rules in a game.

That case respected the policy underlying enactments of Congress as well as that of a massive body of state legislation which, whatever may be the minor variations of language, require that arresting officers shall with reasonable promptness bring arrested persons before a committing authority. Such legislation, we said in the McNabb case,

constitutes an important safeguard -- not only in assuring protection for the innocent, but also in securing conviction of the guilty by methods that commend themselves to a progressive and self-confident society. For this procedural requirement checks resort to those reprehensible practices known as the "third degree" which, though universally rejected as indefensible, still find their way into use. It aims to avoid all the evil implications

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of secret interrogation of persons accused of crime. It reflects not a sentimental, but a sturdy, view of law enforcement. It outlaws [64 S.Ct. 897] easy but self-defeating ways in which brutality is substituted for brains as an instrument of crime detection. A statute carrying such purposes is expressive of a general legislative policy to which courts should not be heedless when appropriate situations call for its application.

318 U.S. at 344.

In the circumstances of the McNabb case, we found such an appropriate situation, in that the defendants were illegally detained under aggravating circumstances: one of them was subjected to unremitting questioning by half a dozen police officers for five or six hours, and the other two for two days. We held that

a conviction resting on evidence secured through such a flagrant disregard of the procedure which Congress has commanded cannot be allowed to stand without making the courts themselves accomplices in willful disobedience of law. Congress has not explicitly forbidden the use of evidence so procured. But to permit such evidence to be made the basis of a conviction in the federal courts would stultify the policy which Congress has enacted into law.

318 U.S. at 345. For like reasons, it was held in the Nardone case that, where wiretapping is prohibited by Congress, the fruits of illegal wiretapping constitute illicit evidence, and are therefore inadmissible. Nardone v. United States, 302 U.S. 379; 308 U.S. 338. Inexcusable detention for the purpose of illegally extracting evidence from an accused, and the successful extraction of such inculpatory statements by continuous questioning for many hours under psychological pressure, were the decisive features in the McNabb case which led us to rule that a conviction on such evidence could not stand.

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