Davis v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation114 S.Ct. 2350,512 U.S. 452,129 L.Ed.2d 362
Docket Number921949
PartiesRobert L. DAVIS, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES
Decision Date24 June 1994

512 U.S. 452
114 S.Ct. 2350
129 L.Ed.2d 362
Robert L. DAVIS, Petitioner



No. 92-1949.
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued March 29, 1994.
Decided June 24, 1994.
Syllabus *

Petitioner, a member of the United States Navy, initially waived his rights to remain silent and to counsel when he was interviewed by Naval Investigative Service agents in connection with the murder of a sailor. About an hour and a half into the interview, he said, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer." However, when the agents inquired if he was asking for a lawyer, he replied that he was not. They took a short break, he was reminded of his rights, and the interview continued for another hour, until he asked to have a lawyer present before saying anything more. A military judge denied his motion to suppress statements made at the interview, holding that his mention of a lawyer during the interrogation was not a request for counsel. He was convicted of murder, and, ultimately, the Court of Military Appeals affirmed.


1. After a knowing and voluntary waiver of rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694, law enforcement officers may continue questioning until and unless a suspect clearly requests an attorney. A suspect is entitled to the assistance of counsel during custodial interrogation even though the Constitution does not provide for such assistance. Id., at 469-473, 86 S.Ct., at 1625-1627. If the suspect invokes that right at any time, the police must immediately cease questioning him until an attorney is present. Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 484-485, 101 S.Ct. 1880, 1884-1885, 68 L.Ed.2d 378. The Edwards rule serves the prophylactic purpose of preventing officers from badgering a suspect into waiving his previously asserted Miranda rights, and its applicability requires courts to determine whether the accused actually invoked his right to counsel. This is an objective inquiry, requiring some statement that can reasonably be construed to be an expression of a desire for an attorney's assistance. However, if a reference is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, Edwards does not require that officers stop questioning the suspect. Extending Edwards to create such a requirement would transform the Miranda safeguards into wholly irrational obstacles to legitimate investigative activity by needlessly preventing the police from questioning a suspect in the absence of an attorney, even if the suspect does not wish to have one present. The Edwards rule provides a bright line that can be applied by officers in the real world of investigation and interrogation without unduly hampering the gathering of information. This clarity and ease of application would be lost if officers were required to cease questioning based on an ambiguous or equivocal reference to an attorney, since they would be forced to make difficult judgment calls about what the suspect wants, with the threat of suppression if they guess wrong. While it will often be good police practice for officers to clarify whether a suspect making an ambiguous statement really wants an attorney, they are not required to ask clarifying questions. Pp. ____.

2. There is no reason to disturb the conclusion of the courts below that petitioner's remark — "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer" was not a request for counsel. P. ____.

36 M.J. 337 (CMA 1993), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined.

David S. Jonas, for petitioner.

Richard H. Seamon, for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 101 S.Ct. 1880, 68 L.Ed.2d 378 (1981), we held that law enforcement officers must immediately cease questioning a suspect who has clearly asserted his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation. In this case we decide how law enforcement officers should respond when a suspect makes a reference to counsel that is insufficiently clear to invoke the Edwards prohibition on further questioning.


Pool brought trouble — not to River City, but to the Charleston Naval Base. Petitioner, a member of the United States Navy, spent the evening of October 2, 1988, shooting pool at a club on the base. Another sailor, Keith Shackleford, lost a game and a $30 wager to petitioner, but Shackleford refused to pay. After the club closed, Shackleford was beaten to death with a pool cue on a loading dock behind the commissary. The body was found early the next morning.

The investigation by the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) gradually focused on petitioner. Investigative agents determined that petitioner was at the club that evening, and that he was absent without authorization from his duty station the next morning. The agents also learned that only privately owned pool cues could be removed from the club premises, and that petitioner owned two cues — one of which had a bloodstain on it. The agents were told by various people that petitioner either had admitted committing the crime or had recounted details that clearly indicated his involvement in the killing.

On November 4, 1988, petitioner was interviewed at the NIS office. As required by military law, the agents advised petitioner that he was a suspect in the killing, that he was not required to make a statement, that any statement could be used against him at a trial by court-martial, and that he was entitled to speak with an attorney and have an attorney present during questioning. See Art. 31, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 831; Mil.Rule Evid. 305; Manual for Courts-Martial A22-13 (1984). Petitioner waived his rights to remain silent and to counsel, both orally and in writing.

About an hour and a half into the interview, petitioner said, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer." App. 135. According to the uncontradicted testimony of one of the interviewing agents, the interview then proceeded as follows:

"[We m]ade it very clear that we're not here to violate his rights, that if he wants a lawyer, then we will stop any kind of questioning with him, that we weren't going to pursue the matter unless we have it clarified is he asking for a lawyer or is he just making a comment about a lawyer, and he said, [']No, I'm not asking for a lawyer,' and then he continued on, and said, 'No, I don't want a lawyer.' " Id., at 136.

After a short break, the agents reminded petitioner of his rights to remain silent and to counsel. The interview then continued for another hour, until petitioner said, "I think I want a lawyer before I say anything else." Id., at 137. At that point, questioning ceased.

At his general court-martial, petitioner moved to suppress statements made during the November 4 interview. The military judge denied the motion, holding that "the mention of a lawyer by [petitioner] during the course of the interrogation [was] not in the form of a request for counsel and . . . the agents properly determined that [petitioner] was not indicating a desire for or invoking his right to counsel." Id., at 164. Petitioner was convicted on one specification of unpremeditated murder, in violation of Art. 118, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 918. He was sentenced to confinement for life, a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a reduction in rank to the lowest pay grade. The convening authority approved the findings and sentence. The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review affirmed. App. to Pet. for Cert. 12a-15a.

The United States Court of Military Appeals granted discretionary review and affirmed. 36 M.J. 337 (1993). The court recognized that the state and federal courts have developed three different approaches to a suspect's ambiguous or equivocal request for counsel:

"Some jurisdictions have held that any mention of counsel, however ambiguous, is sufficient to require that all questioning cease. Others have attempted to define a threshold standard of clarity for invoking the right to counsel and have held that comments falling short of the threshold do not invoke the right to counsel. Some jurisdictions . . . have held that all interrogation about the offense must immediately cease whenever a suspect mentions counsel, but they allow interrogators to ask narrow questions designed to clarify the earlier statement and the [suspect's] desires respecting counsel." Id., at 341 (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying the third approach, the court held that petitioner's comment was ambiguous, and that the NIS agents properly clarified petitioner's wishes with respect to counsel before continuing questioning him about the offense. Id., at 341-342.

Although we have twice previously noted the varying approaches the lower courts have adopted with respect to ambiguous or equivocal references to counsel during custodial interrogation, see Connecticut v. Barrett, 479 U.S. 523, 529-530, n. 3, 107 S.Ct. 828, 832, n. 3, 93 L.Ed.2d 920 (1987); Smith v. Illinois, 469 U.S. 91, 96, n. 3, 105 S.Ct. 490, 493, n. 3, 83 L.Ed.2d 488 (1984) (per curiam ), we have not addressed the issue on the merits. We granted certiorari, 510 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 379, 126 L.Ed.2d 329 (1993), to do so.


The Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches only at the initiation of adversary criminal proceedings, see United States v. Gouveia, 467 U.S. 180, 188, 104 S.Ct. 2292, 2297, 81 L.Ed.2d 146 (1984), and before proceedings are initiated a suspect in a criminal investigation has no constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. Nevertheless, we held in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 469-473, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1625-1627, 16 L.Ed.2d 694...

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