The Supreme Judicial Court today tossed a Fall River man's murder confession because police waited too long to start asking him about the case while he was in custody.
The ruling, which reaffirms a 1996 ruling that set a six-hour maximum for obtaining a confession after a suspect is arrested, leaves Massachusetts at odds with most other states, which let police take longer if the "totality of the circumstances" warrants it.
Prosecutors pointed to the fact that the 1996 ruling was based in part on reasoning that other states have since abandoned. And they said that while the man was in custody for nine hours, he was originally arrested on a stolen-car charge and that the six-hour clock for the murder confession should only have started several hours later, when they started asking him specifically about the murder.
In its ruling, the state's highest court said the six-hour rule remains an effective way to ensure people are not simply held for long periods of time to try to wrest a confession out of them. It added police knew initially they really wanted the guy for murder, but had to wait for the district attorney to sign off on the charge and used the stolen-vehicle charge to hold him, so the six-hour clock started with his initial arrest.
But the court said setting a specific time limit also helps prosecutors and police:
Predictability is an asset to law enforcement, criminal defendants, prosecutors, judges, and others. ... Given that suspects may be arrested on any day of the week and at any time of day or night, in any location, and under myriad circumstances, setting a clear six-hour limit from the time of arrest provides specific guidance to police officers so that they can plan accordingly and know that, within the six-hour period, any delay will not be considered unreasonable. This is, indeed, a "safe harbor" for the Commonwealth. ... Beyond that six-hour limit, the rule ensures that criminal defendants will not be held for an unreasonably lengthy period without the benefit of the rights afforded to them under our Constitution, our common law, and our rules of criminal procedure. In this respect, it is a safe harbor for the defendant.