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Law Student's Argument Helps in Miranda Case

Ruling Places Limits on Police Questioning

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
Posted November 17, 1999

You have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. Do you understand? Anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand? You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand? If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand? ...
A Berkeley law student was a key player behind the Nov. 8 federal appeals court ruling involving Miranda rights, the right of criminal suspects to remain silent and obtain counsel during police interrogations.

As a third-year law student, Victoria Wong argued the plaintiff's case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

The effectiveness of Wong's argument became clear when the court announced its decision, agreeing that police officers may be held personally liable if they deliberately continue to question suspects after they invoke their Miranda rights.

"That was really exciting," Wong said of the decision. "I know that I played a part in it.

"I definitely felt like it was great for me to have had the chance to be involved with it. It's something that a lot of lawyers never do, argue before the circuit, so it was a great opportunity for me."

Wong became involved in the case while enrolled in the Federal Practice Clinic at the School of Law.

Professor Charles Weisselberg, the clinic's director, along with private attorneys and a team of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, filed the case, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice v. Butts. It stems from two criminal cases, one involving a murder suspect arrested by Los Angeles police and one involving a murder suspect arrested by Santa Monica police.

Both suspects had initially invoked their right to remain silent but, after further police questioning, made incriminating statements that were used against them. One suspect was convicted of murder, the other of manslaughter.

The law clinic's case, filed in federal district court in Los Angeles, is a civil suit that contends both police departments and their officers violated the defendants' constitutional rights.

Questioning suspects in deliberate violation of Miranda has become a widespread practice throughout California, Weisselberg contends. The civil case was brought to help curtail the practice and lead police to adhere to Miranda, he said.

Police officers named as defendants in the law clinic case felt they should have been dropped from the lawsuit, so they took the matter to the Court of Appeals.

The officers contended they could not be held liable because they were merely following department training procedures. They also contended that ignoring a suspect's efforts to invoke Miranda did not amount to violating a suspect's constitutional rights, Wong said, because they viewed Miranda warnings as mere procedural tasks.

Wong argued that Miranda -- the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right of criminal suspects to remain silent during police interrogation and obtain counsel -- is the Supreme Court's articulation of the constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The appeals court judges agreed with her on Monday. The pending civil case against the officers, and their police departments, will proceed to trial.

"She really did a wonderful job," said Weisselberg. "There are some people who argue by preaching. But the best arguments I've heard are really conversations, and she really engaged the judges in a conversation."

Wong's accomplishment is especially impressive considering she only had a few months to prepare.

Weisselberg had been involved with the case for several years. He and his co-counsel filed it in late 1995 while Weisselberg was teaching at a clinic at the University of Southern California Law School. He brought the case with him when he joined the Berkeley faculty in fall 1998.

Wong, however, first learned of the case in late August 1998. Oral arguments before the Court of Appeals were set for December.

In addition to her full course load as a law student, she had to fully understand the main legal briefs that the clinic had filed in the case; the friend-of-the-court briefs filed by others; the case law; and the case record.

"She really showed a wonderful ability to learn a complex case fast," said Weisselberg. "She took ownership of the case and learned it well enough to take on people who were on the case much longer."

Law school students, faculty and practicing lawyers held practice sessions with her, a sort of moot court in which they peppered her with questions and opposing arguments.

Attorneys with the law firm of Brobeck, Phleger and Harrison, which supports Boalt's clinic, brought Wong to their San Francisco offices for a tough practice argument.

On Dec. 7, 1998, Wong walked into the federal appeals courthouse in Pasadena. When a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit proceeded to grill her with questions, she was ready.

"They had really good questions that cut right to the heart of the matter," said Wong. "I felt good because I felt I had prepared well. There weren't any questions that we hadn't anticipated. So that was nice.

"I felt as ready as I could be but I felt nervous, yeah. I had practiced a lot so I felt pretty comfortable with the our arguments and the materials and the case law. But I was still nervous. This was my first time appearing in any court, anywhere, and this was a big one."

After the arguments in the Pasadena courthouse, there was no time to celebrate her work. Wong had to get back to the Bay Area and Boalt Hall for finals.

Wong graduated in May. She plans to clerk for a federal circuit court judge in San Diego before beginning a legal career in public interest litigation. The 29-year-old was raised in Los Altos and is now living in Oakland.



November 17 - 23, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 15)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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