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CULOMBE v. CONNECTICUT

decided: June 19, 1961.

CULOMBE
v.
CONNECTICUT



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ERRORS OF CONNECTICUT.

Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart

Author: Frankfurter

[ 367 U.S. Page 568]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which MR. JUSTICE STEWART joins.

Once again the Court is confronted with the painful duty of sitting in judgment on a State's conviction for murder, after a jury's verdict was found flawless by the State's highest court, in order to determine whether the

[ 367 U.S. Page 569]

     defendant's confessions, decisive for the conviction, were admitted into evidence in accordance with the standards for admissibility demanded by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This recurring problem touching the administration of criminal justice by the States presents in an aggravated form in this case the anxious task of reconciling the responsibility of the police for ferreting out crime with the right of the criminal defendant, however guilty, to be tried according to constitutional requirements.

On December 15, 1956, the dead bodies of two men were found in Kurp's Gasoline Station in New Britain, Connecticut. Edward J. Kurpiewski, the proprietor, was found in the boiler room with a bullet in his head. Daniel J. Janowski, a customer, was found in the men's toilet room shot twice in the head. Parked at the pumps in front of the station was Janowski's car. In it was Janowski's daughter, physically unharmed. She was the only surviving eyewitness of what had happened at the station. She was eighteen months old.

The Kurp's affair was one in a series of holdups and holdup killings that terrified the operators of gasoline stations, package stores and small shops throughout the environing Connecticut area. Newspapers and radio and television broadcasters reported each fresh depredation of the "mad killers." At Hartford, the State Police were at work investigating the crimes, apparently with little evidence to go on. At the scene of the killings of Kurpiewski and Janowski no physical clues were discovered.*fn1 The bullet slugs removed from the brains of the two victims were split and damaged.

[ 367 U.S. Page 570]

     In the last week of February 1957, for reasons which do not appear in this record, suspicion in connection with at least two of the holdups under investigation, holdups of a country store in Coventry and of a package store in Rocky Hill, focused on two friends, Arthur Culombe and Joseph Taborsky. On the afternoon of February 23, the two were accosted by teams of officers and asked to come to State Police Headquarters. They were never again out of police custody. In the Headquarters' interrogation room and elsewhere, they were questioned about the Coventry and Rocky Hill holdups, Kurp's, and other matters. Within ten days Culombe had five times confessed orally to participation in the Kurp's Gasoline Station affair -- once re-enacting the holdup for the police -- and had signed three typed statements incriminating himself and Taborsky in the Kurp's killings. Taborsky also confessed.

The two were indicted and tried jointly for murder in the first degree before a jury in the Superior Court at Hartford. Certain of their oral and written statements were permitted to go to the jury over their timely objections that these had been extracted from them by police methods which made the confessions inadmissible consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and their convictions affirmed by the Supreme Court of Errors. 147 Conn. 194, 158 A. 2d 239. Only Culombe sought review by this Court. Because his petition for certiorari presented serious questions concerning the limitations imposed by the Federal Due Process Clause upon the investigative activities of state criminal law enforcement officials, we issued the writ. 363 U.S. 826.

I.

The occasion which in December 1956 confronted the Connecticut State Police with two corpses and an infant as their sole informants to a crime of community-disturbing

[ 367 U.S. Page 571]

     violence is not a rare one. Despite modern advances in the technology of crime detection, offenses frequently occur about which things cannot be made to speak. And where there cannot be found innocent human witnesses to such offenses, nothing remains -- if police investigation is not to be balked before it has fairly begun -- but to seek out possibly guilty witnesses and ask them questions, witnesses, that is, who are suspected of knowing something about the offense precisely because they are suspected of implication in it.

The questions which these suspected witnesses are asked may serve to clear them. They may serve, directly or indirectly, to lead the police to other suspects than the persons questioned. Or they may become the means by which the persons questioned are themselves made to furnish proofs which will eventually send them to prison or death. In any event, whatever its outcome, such questioning is often indispensable to crime detection. Its compelling necessity has been judicially recognized as its sufficient justification, even in a society which, like ours, stands strongly and constitutionally committed to the principle that persons accused of crime cannot be made to convict themselves out of their own mouths.

But persons who are suspected of crime will not always be unreluctant to answer questions put by the police. Since under the procedures of Anglo-American criminal justice they cannot be constrained by legal process to give answers which incriminate them, the police have resorted to other means to unbend their reluctance, lest criminal investigation founder.*fn2 Kindness, cajolery, entreaty,

[ 367 U.S. Page 572]

     deception, persistent cross-questioning, even physical brutality have been used to this end.*fn3 In the United States, "interrogation" has become a police technique,*fn4 and detention for purposes of interrogation a common, although

[ 367 U.S. Page 573]

     generally unlawful, practice.*fn5 Crime detection officials, finding that if their suspects are kept under tight police control during questioning they are less likely to be distracted, less likely to be recalcitrant and, of course, less likely to make off and escape entirely, not infrequently take such suspects into custody for "investigation."

This practice has its manifest evils and dangers. Persons subjected to it are torn from the reliances of their daily existence and held at the mercy of those whose job it is -- if such persons have committed crimes, as it is supposed they have -- to prosecute them. They are deprived of freedom without a proper judicial tribunal having found them guilty, without a proper judicial tribunal having found even that there is probable cause to believe that they may be guilty.*fn6 What actually happens

[ 367 U.S. Page 574]

     to them behind the closed door of the interrogation room is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. Certainly, if through excess of zeal or aggressive impatience or flaring up of temper in the face of obstinate silence a prisoner is abused,*fn7 he is faced with the task of overcoming, by his lone testimony, solemn official denials.*fn8 The prisoner knows this -- knows that no friendly or disinterested witness is present -- and the knowledge may itself induce fear.*fn9 But, in any case, the risk is great that the police

[ 367 U.S. Page 575]

     will accomplish behind their closed door precisely what the demands of our legal order forbid: make a suspect the unwilling collaborator in establishing his guilt. This they may accomplish not only with ropes and a rubber hose, not only by relay questioning persistently, insistently subjugating a tired mind, but by subtler devices.

In the police station a prisoner is surrounded by known hostile forces. He is disoriented from the world he knows and in which he finds support.*fn10 He is subject to coercing impingements, undermining even if not obvious pressures of every variety. In such an atmosphere, questioning that is long continued -- even if it is only repeated at intervals, never protracted to the point of physical exhaustion -- inevitably suggests that the questioner has a right to, and expects, an answer.*fn11 This is so, certainly, when the prisoner has never been told that he need not answer and when, because his commitment to custody seems to be at the will of his questioners, he has every

[ 367 U.S. Page 576]

     reason to believe that he will be held and interrogated until he speaks.*fn12

However, a confession made by a person in custody is not always the result of an overborne will. The police may be midwife to a declaration naturally born of remorse, or relief, or desperation, or calculation. If that is so, if the "suction process"*fn13 has not been at the prisoner and drained his capacity for freedom of choice, does not the awful responsibility of the police for maintaining the peaceful order of society justify the means which they have employed? It will not do to forget, as Sir Patrick (now Lord Justice) Devlin has put it, that "The least criticism of police methods of interrogation deserves to be most carefully weighed because the evidence which such interrogation produces is often decisive; the high degree of proof which the English law requires -- proof beyond reasonable doubt -- often could not be achieved by the prosecution without the assistance of the accused's own statement."*fn14 Yet even if one cannot adopt "an undiscriminating hostility to mere interrogation . . . without unduly fettering the States in protecting society from the criminal,"*fn15 there remain the questions: When,

[ 367 U.S. Page 577]

     applied to what practices, is a judgment of impermissibility drawn from the fundamental conceptions of Anglo-American accusatorial process "undiscriminating"? What are the characteristics of the "mere interrogation" which is allowable consistently with those conceptions?

II.

The problem which must be faced in fair recognition of the States' basic security and of the States' observance of their own standards, apart from the sanctions of the Fourteenth Amendment, in bringing the guilty to justice is that which Mr. Justice Jackson described in dealing with three cases before us:

"In each case police were confronted with one or more brutal murders which the authorities were under the highest duty to solve. Each of these murders was unwitnessed, and the only positive knowledge on which a solution could be based was possessed by the killer. In each there was reasonable ground to suspect an individual but not enough legal evidence to charge him with guilt. In each the police attempted to meet the situation by taking the suspect into custody and interrogating him . . . .

". . . . No one suggests that any course held promise of solution of these murders other than to take the suspect into custody for questioning. The alternative was to close the books on the crime and forget it, with the suspect at large. This is a grave choice for a society in which two-thirds of the murders already are closed out as insoluble.

". . . The suspect neither had nor was advised of his right to get counsel. This presents a real dilemma in a free society. To subject one without counsel to questioning which may and is intended to

[ 367 U.S. Page 578]

     convict him, is a real peril to individual freedom. To bring in a lawyer means a real peril to solution of the crime, because, under our adversary system, he deems that his sole duty is to protect his client -- guilty or innocent -- and that in such a capacity he owes no duty whatever to help society solve its crime problem. Under this conception of criminal procedure, any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances." Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 57, 58-59.

The nature and components of this problem, concerning as it does liberty and security, had better be overtly and critically examined than smothered by unanalyzed assumptions. That judges who agree on relatively legal considerations may disagree in their application to the same set of circumstances does not weaken the validity of those considerations nor minimize their importance. Differences in the appraisal of the same facts is a commonplace of adjudication.

The critical elements of the problem may be quickly isolated in light of what has already been said. Its first pole is the recognition that "Questioning suspects is indispensable in law enforcement."*fn16 As the Supreme Court of New Jersey put it recently: "the public interest requires that interrogation, and that at a police station, not completely be forbidden, so long as it is conducted fairly, reasonably, within proper limits and with full regard to

[ 367 U.S. Page 579]

     the rights of those being questioned."*fn17 But if it is once admitted that questioning of suspects is permissible, whatever reasonable means are needed to make the questioning effective must also be conceded to the police.

[ 367 U.S. Page 580]

     Often prolongation of the interrogation period will be essential, so that a suspect's story can be checked and, if it proves untrue, he can be confronted with the lie; if true, released without charge.*fn18 Often the place of questioning will have to be a police interrogation room, both because it is important to assure the proper atmosphere of privacy and non-distraction if questioning is to be made productive,*fn19 and because, where a suspect is questioned but not taken into custody, he -- and in some cases his associates -- may take prompt warning and flee the premises. Legal counsel for the suspect will generally prove a thorough obstruction to the investigation.*fn20 Indeed, even to inform the suspect of his legal right to keep silent will prove an obstruction. Whatever fortifies the suspect or seconds him in his capacity to keep his mouth closed is a potential obstacle to the solution of crime.

[ 367 U.S. Page 581]

     At the other pole is a cluster of convictions each expressive, in a different manifestation, of the basic notion that the terrible engine of the criminal law is not to be used to overreach individuals who stand helpless against it.*fn21 Among these are the notions that men are not to be imprisoned at the unfettered will of their prosecutors, nor subjected to physical brutality by officials charged with the investigation of crime. Cardinal among them, also, is the conviction, basic to our legal order, that men are not to be exploited for the information necessary to condemn them before the law, that, in Hawkins' words, a prisoner is not "to be made the deluded instrument of his own conviction." 2 Hawkins, Pleas of the Crown (8th ed. 1824), 595. This principle, branded into the consciousness of our civilization by the memory of the secret inquisitions, sometimes practiced with torture, which were borrowed briefly from the continent during the era of the Star Chamber,*fn22 was well known to those who established the American governments.*fn23 Its essence is the requirement

[ 367 U.S. Page 582]

     that the State which proposes to convict and punish an individual produce the evidence against him by the independent labor of its officers, not by the simple, cruel expedient of forcing it from his own lips. See Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 206-207; Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 235-238. Quite early the English courts acknowledged the barrier that, in this regard, set off the accusatorial system from the inquisitorial.*fn24 And soon

[ 367 U.S. Page 583]

     they came to enforce it by the rigorous demand that an extra-judicial confession, if it was to be offered in evidence against a man, must be the product of his own free choice.*fn25 So fundamental, historically, is this concept, that the

[ 367 U.S. Page 584]

     Fourteenth Amendment, as enforced by our decisions, applied it as a limitation upon the criminal procedure of the States. Consistently with that Amendment neither the body nor mind of an accused may be twisted until he breaks. Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278; Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556.

Recognizing the need to protect criminal suspects from all of the dangers which are to be feared when the process of police interrogation is entirely unleashed, legislatures have enacted several kinds of laws designed to curb the worst excesses of the investigative activity of the police. The most widespread of these are the ubiquitous statutes requiring the prompt taking of persons arrested before a judicial officer;*fn26 these are responsive both to the fear

[ 367 U.S. Page 585]

     of administrative detention without probable cause and to the known risk of opportunity for third-degree practices which is allowed by delayed judicial examination.*fn27 Other statutes outlaw the sweating, beating or imprisonment

[ 367 U.S. Page 586]

     of suspects for the purpose of extorting confessions,*fn28 or assure imprisoned suspects the right to communicate with friends or legal counsel.*fn29 But because it is the courts which are charged, in the ultimate, both with the

[ 367 U.S. Page 587]

     enforcement of the criminal law and with safeguarding the criminal defendant's rights to procedures consistent with fundamental fairness, the problem of reconciling society's need for police interrogation with society's need for protection from the possible abuses of police interrogation decisively devolves upon the courts, particularly in connection with the rules of evidence which regulate the admissibility of extra-judicial confessions. Under our federal system this task, with respect to local crimes, is, of course, primarily the responsibility of the state courts. The Fourteenth Amendment, however, limits their freedom in this regard. It subjects their broad powers to a limited, but searching, federal review and places upon this Court the obligation -- with all the deference and caution which exercise of such a competence demands -- to adjudicate what due process of law requires by way of restricting the state courts in their use of the products of police interrogation.

That judgment is what is at issue in this case.

III.

The dilemma posed by police interrogation of suspects in custody and the judicial use of interrogated confessions to convict their makers cannot be resolved simply by wholly subordinating one set of opposing considerations to the other. The argument that without such interrogation it is often impossible to close the hiatus between suspicion and proof, especially in cases involving professional criminals, is often pressed in quarters responsible and not unfeeling. It is the same argument that

[ 367 U.S. Page 588]

     was once invoked to support the lash and the rack.*fn30 Where it has been put to this Court in its extreme form, as justifying the all-night grilling of prisoners under circumstances of sustained, week-long terror, we have rejected it. Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 240-241. "The Constitution proscribes such lawless means irrespective of the end."

But asking questions is not the lash or the rack, and to say that the argument ex necessitate is not the short answer to every situation in which it is invoked is not to dismiss it altogether. Due process does not demand of the States, in their administration of the criminal law, standards of favor to the accused which our civilization, in its most sensitive expression, has never found it practical to adopt. The principle of the Indian Evidence Act which excludes all confessions made to the police or by persons while they are detained by the police*fn31 has never been accepted in England*fn32 or in

[ 367 U.S. Page 589]

     this country.*fn33 Nor has the principle of the Scottish cases barring the use in evidence of a defendant's incriminating responses to police questioning at any time after suspicion has focused on him.*fn34 Rather, this Court (in cases coming here from the lower federal courts),*fn35 the courts of England*fn36 and of Canada,*fn37 and

[ 367 U.S. Page 590]

     the courts of all the States*fn38 have agreed in holding permissible the receipt of confessions secured by the questioning of suspects in custody by crime-detection officials. And, in a long series of cases, this Court has held that the

[ 367 U.S. Page 591]

     Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit a State from such detention and examination of a suspect as, under all the circumstances, is found not to be coercive. See Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219; Lyons v. Oklahoma,

[ 367 U.S. Page 592322]

     U.S. 596; Gallegos v. Nebraska, 342 U.S. 55; Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443; Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 184; Crooker v. California, 357 U.S. 433; Cicenia v. Lagay, 357 U.S. 504. And see Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736, 738.

[ 367 U.S. Page 593]

     It is true that the English courts have long tended severely to discourage law enforcement officers from asking questions of persons under arrest or who are so far suspected that their arrest is imminent. The judges have

[ 367 U.S. Page 594]

     many times deprecated the practice even while receiving in evidence the confessions it has produced.*fn39 The manual known as the Judges' Rules, first issued in 1912, augmented in 1918, and clarified by a Home Office Circular

[ 367 U.S. Page 595]

     published in 1930, embodies the attitude of the English Bench in this regard.*fn40 While encouraging police officers to put questions to all possibly informed persons, whether or not ...


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