Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964).

This case answers following question:

Does the Sixth Amendment’s right to assistance of counsel apply during police interrogations?

In this case, the Court had to determine when the right to assistance of counsel, guaranteed to a criminal defendant by the Sixth Amendment, comes into play: during a police interrogation, conducted as part of an initial investigation or only after charges have been formally filed against the defendant. Id. at 479. The Court found that the right to counsel attaches when police interrogate an individual, and that the exclusionary rule prohibits the use of any statements taken form an individual after he or she has been denied a request to speak to an attorney. Id. at 484. The Court noted that this is “the state when legal aid and advice were most critical” and making the right contingent on whether formal charges have been filed “would exalt form over substance.” Id. at 486.

In this case, the petitioner was arrested and brought to the police station for questioning in connection to his brother-in-law’s murder. Id. at 479. Petitioner immediately asked to speak to his lawyer. Id. His lawyer had been contacted by petitioner’s mother, and met the arresting officers and petitioner are they arrived at the police station. Id. at 480. During the long interrogation, both the lawyer and petitioner asked to speak to one another, but were continually denied; in fact, the police even lied to the petitioner telling him the attorney “didn’t want to see” him. Id. Ultimately, petitioner made a statement implicating himself in the crime and was asked a series of “carefully framed questions” by a prosecutor, the answers to which were used to convict petitioner of murder. Id. at 483.

The Court began by acknowledging that “the interrogation here was conducted before petitioner was formally indicted[, b]ut in the context of this case, that fact should make no difference.” Id. at 485. Instead, the Court noted that this was a critical phase of the prosecution and legal counsel was “essential to advise petitioner of his rights in this delicate situation.” Id. at 486. The Court found a police interrogation more important that other phases of the prosecution where the right to counsel had attached, including a preliminary hearing and an arraignment. Id. To hold otherwise “would make the trial no more than an appeal from the interrogation.” Id.

For the right to attach to an interrogation, the Court notes that several facts must be true. Id. at 490-91. First, the interrogation must be more than “a general inquiry into an unsolved crime,” meaning it has “begun to focus on a particular suspect.” Id. at 490. Second, the suspect is in police custody and the police are actually interrogating the suspect by “carrying out a process” that invites incriminating statements. Id. at 491. Finally, the suspect has either requested legal counsel or have not been effectively warned of his rights. Id. Under such circumstances, all of which existed in this case, the right to legal counsel attaches and “no statement elicited by the police during [such] interrogation may be used against him at a criminal trial.” Id.

It is worth noting that this decision would be re-calibrated, so to speak, as the Court later determined that an independent right to legal counsel exists within the Fifth Amendment. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981).