Oregon v. Elstad Case Brief

Why is the case important?

An individual was convicted of burglary. A signed confession was used to convict him. He was questioned without the benefit of Miranda warnings.

Facts of the case

Michael James Elstad was suspected of committing a burglary and was picked up by police officers in his home. Before officers had given the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, Elstad made an incriminating statement. Once at the Sheriff’s headquarters, Elstad was advised of his rights. Elstad then voluntarily executed a written confession.


Whether an initial failure of law enforcement officers to administer the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, without more, ‘taints’ subsequent admissions made after a suspect has been fully advised of and has waived his Miranda rights?


“The majority first observed the Oregon court assumed and respondent here contends that a failure to administer Miranda warnings necessarily breeds the same consequences as police infringement of a constitutional right, so that evidence uncovered following an unwarned statement must be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. The majority believes this view misconstrues the nature of the protections afforded by Miranda warnings and therefore misreads the consequences of police failure to supply them.
The majority observed, a procedural Miranda violation differs in significant respects from violations of the Fourth Amendment, which have traditionally mandated a broad application of the ‘fruits’ doctrine. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule is to deter unreasonable searches, no matter how probative their fruit. ‘The exclusionary rule, . . . when utilized to effectuate the Fourth Amendment, serves interests and policies that are distinct from those it serves under the Fifth.’ Where a Fourth Amendment violation ‘taints’ the confession, a finding of voluntariness for the purposes of the Fifth Amendment is merely a threshold requirement in determining whether the confession may be admitted in evidence. Beyond this, the prosecution must show a sufficient break in events to undermine the inference that the confession was caused by the Fourth Amendment violation.
The Miranda exclusionary rule, however, serves the Fifth Amendment and sweeps more broadly than the Fifth Amendment itself. It may be triggered even in the absence of a Fifth Amendment violation. The Fifth Amendment prohibits use by the prosecution in its case in chief only of compelled testimony. Failure to administer Miranda warnings creates a presumption of compulsion. Consequently, unwarned statements that are otherwise voluntary within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment must nevertheless be excluded from evidence under Miranda. Thus, in the individual case, Miranda’s preventive medicine provides a remedy even to the defendant who has suffered no identifiable constitutional harm.
But the Miranda presumption, though irrebuttable for purposes of the prosecution’s case in chief, does not require that the statements and their fruits be discarded as inherently tainted. Despite the fact that patently voluntary statements taken in violation of Miranda must be excluded from the prosecution’s case, the presumption of coercion does not bar their use for impeachment purposes on cross-examination.
As in Tucker, the absence of any coercion or improper tactics undercuts the twin rationales – trust worthiness and deterrence – for a broader rule. Once warned, the suspect is free to exercise his own volition in deciding whether or not to make a statement to the authorities. The Court has often noted: ‘a living witness is not to be mechanically equated with the proffer of inanimate evidentiary objects illegally seized. . . . The living witness is an individual human personality whose attributes of will, perception, memory and volition interact to determine what testimony he will give.’
There is a vast difference between the direct consequences flowing from coercion of a confession by physical violence or other deliberate means calculated to break the suspect’s will and the uncertain consequences of disclosure of a ‘guilty secret’ freely given in response to an unwarned but noncoercive question, as in this case. Justice Brennan’s contention that it is impossible to perceive any causal distinction between this case and one involving a confession that is coerced by torture is wholly unpersuasive. Certainly, in respondent’s case, the causal connection between any psychological disadvantage created by his admission and his ultimate decision to cooperate is speculative and attenuated at best. It is difficult to tell with certainly what motivates a suspect to speak.
A suspect’s confession may be traced to factors as disparate as ‘a prearrest event such as a visit with a minister,’ or an intervening event such as the exchange of words respondent had with his father. The majority concluded that, absent deliberately coercive or improper tactics in obtaining the initial statement, the mere fact that a suspect has made an unwarned admission does not warrant a presumption of compulsion. A subsequent administration of Miranda warnings to a suspect who has given a voluntary but unwarned statement ordinarily should suffice to remove the conditions that precluded admission of the earlier statement. In such circumstances, the finder of fact may reasonably conclude that the suspect made a rational and intelligent choice whether to waive or invoke his rights.
The majority next observed though belated, the reading of respondent’s rights was undeniably complete. Also, there is no question that respondent knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent before he described his participation in the burglary. It is also beyond dispute that respondent’s earlier remark was voluntary, within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The State has conceded the issue of custody and thus the Court must assume that the officer breached Miranda procedures in failing to administer Miranda warnings before initiating the discussion in the living room. Nonetheless, whatever the reason for the officer’s oversight, the incident had none of the earmarks of coercion. Nor did the officers exploit the unwarned admission to pressure respondent into waiving his right to remain silent.
When police ask questions of a suspect in custody without administering the required warnings, Miranda dictates that the answers received be presumed compelled and that they be excluded from evidence at trial in the State’s case in chief. The Court has carefully adhered to this principle, permitting a narrow exception only where pressing public safety concerns demanded.
Far from establishing a rigid rule, we direct courts to avoid one

  • there is no warrant for presuming coercive effect where the suspect’s initial inculpatory statement, though technically in violation of Miranda, was voluntary. The relevant inquiry is whether, in fact, the second statement was also voluntarily made. As in any such inquiry, the finder of fact must examine the surrounding circumstances and the entire course of police conduct with respect to the suspect in evaluating the voluntariness of his statements. The fact that a suspect chooses to speak after being informed of his rights is, of course, highly probative. The majority found that the dictates of Miranda and the goals of the Fifth Amendment proscription against use of compelled testimony are fully satisfied in the circumstances of this case by barring use of the unwarned statement in the case in chief. No further purpose is served by imputing ‘taint’ to subsequent statements obtained pursuant to a voluntary and
    knowing waiver. The Court therefore held that a suspect who has once responded to unwarned yet uncoercive questioning is not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he has been given the requisite Miranda warnings.

    Discussion. This is an interesting case, showing that although Miranda warnings are necessary, they are not the be all and end all if an individual continues to speak and is not coerced to do so.

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    The Supreme Court of the United States held that Elstad’s statements, made in his own living room and in the presence of his mother before being taken to the police station, were not the subject of police coercion. The Court also held that a suspect who had once responded to unwarned yet noncoercive questioning was not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he had been given the Miranda warnings. The Court finally held that Elstad’s waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights after being arrested was done voluntarily and with full understanding of his rights. The Court therefore reversed the holding of the court of appeals.

    • Case Brief: 1985
    • Petitioner: Oregon
    • Respondent: Elstad
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 470 US 298 (1985)
    Argued: Oct 3, 1984
    Decided: Mar 4, 1985