The US Supreme Court
in a 5-4 majority issued a decision on 2 April 2000, seriously undercutting the right to counsel for people accused of a crime
. This basic right is stipulated in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. The new rule is that police can question a person already charged with a crime and represented by a lawyer, so long as the questioning is technically directed at a different offence than the one charged.
In Texas v. Cobb, the defendant had obtained legal counsel in connection to a charge of burglary. The police developed information that the defendant may have killed two people during the burglary and buried their bodies. The police did not contact the attorney to arrange an interview, as was required under law, and instead spoke directly to the defendant and obtained a confession.
Applying established precedents, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the confession on the grounds that once a criminal defendant is represented, he cannot waive his right to counsel and speak directly to the police without first having access to the lawyer's advice. Any other rule would make the right to counsel meaningless.
The Supreme Court overturned the Texas appeals court decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared that the Sixth Amendment did not apply to the case because the defendant was charged with burglary, and even though the murders were alleged to have occurred during the burglary, they were a separate offence and thus declaring that the Sixth Amendment is offence specific. Rehnquist stated that so long as police officers ask about a crime other than the one charged, they can ignore the accused's lawyer altogether.
This ruling severely threatens to diminish the right to counsel because a single criminal act can always be charged as several different offenses. The decision permits law enforcement officials to question those charged with a crime without first approaching counsel, through the simple device of asking questions about any other related crime not actually charged in the indictment. I.e. You are arrested for, and charged with, driving while under the influence. You obtain counsel for this. During the course of the investigation, the police find a gun in the car which ballistics links to a homicide. The police can question you regarding the homicide with out you lawyer present, and can theoretically deny you access to your lawyer in regards to the homicide investigation, even if they believe that were driving away from the crime scene at the time of arrest.
Rehnquist elevated above the principles of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, something not even mentioned in the Constitution—"society's interest in the ability of police to talk to witnesses and suspects, even those who have been charged with other offenses."
Allegedly free confessions were the main evidence of despots from the Spanish Inquisition to the Star Chamber, and were a principal concern of the US Constitution's framers. Nevertheless, Rehnquist wrote in his 2 April opinion that "the ready ability to obtain uncoerced confessions is not an evil but an unmitigated good."
Info courtesy of http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/apr2001/supr-a05.shtml