Top 10 Cases for Police Series, Part 1

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Editor's Note: With so many cases affecting policing, the question often arises regarding which are the most important. If a law enforcement professional could choose only 10 cases to examine, which would those be? Included in this series is a list of what experts Rolando del Carmen and Jeffery Walker consider to be the top 10 cases most influencing day-to-day policing in the U.S. In reverse order, we give you number 10: Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977).


Under the Miranda rule, interrogations can be “actual” (as when questions are asked) or the “functional equivalent” thereof.


The day before Christmas, a ten-year-old girl disappeared from a YMCA building in Des Moines, Iowa. A short time later, Williams, an escapee from a mental hospital and a religious person, was seen leaving the YMCA with a large bundle wrapped in a blanket. A 14-year-old boy who helped him carry the bundle reported that he had seen “two legs in it and they were skinny and white.” Williams’ car was found the next day in Davenport, 160 miles east of Des Moines. Items of clothing belonging to the missing child and a blanket like the one used to wrap the bundle were found at a rest stop between the YMCA in Des Moines and where the car was found in Davenport. Assuming that the girl’s body could be found between the YMCA and the car, a massive search was conducted. Meanwhile, Williams was arrested by police in Davenport and was arraigned. Williams’ counsel was informed by the police that Williams would be returned to Des Moines without being interrogated. During the trip, an officer began a conversation with Williams in which he said that the girl ought to be given a Christian burial before a snowstorm, which might prevent the body from being found. As Williams and the officer neared the town where the body was hidden, Williams agreed to take the officer to the child’s body. The body was found about two miles from one of the search teams. At the trial, a motion to suppress the evidence was denied and Williams was convicted of first-degree murder.


Was what the police did in talking to Williams about a “Christian burial” the “functional equivalent” to interrogating a suspect without providing him his right to counsel? YES.

Supreme Court Decision

Interrogation takes place, not only when direct questions are asked, but also when, as in this case, the police officers, knowing the defendant’s religious interest, make remarks designed to appeal to that interest and therefore induce a confession. In this case, the police officer’s “Christian burial” speech was equivalent to an interrogation; therefore, Williams was entitled to the assistance of counsel at that time.


“There can be no serious doubt . . . that Detective Leaming deliberately and designedly set out to elicit information from Williams just as surely as — and perhaps more effectively than — if he had formally interrogated him. Detective Leaming was fully aware before departing from Des Moines that Williams was being represented in Davenport by [lawyer] Kelly and in Des Moines by [lawyer] McKnight. Yet he purposely sought during Williams’ isolation from his lawyers to obtain as much information as possible. Indeed Detective Leaming conceded as much when he testified at Williams’ trial.”

Case Significance

There are two important principles for the police in this case. The first is that once a suspect has been formally charged with an offense and has a lawyer, he or she should not be interrogated unless there's a valid waiver. The second is that conversations with or appeals to the suspect that may induce a confession constitute an interrogation that then requires both Miranda warnings and the right to counsel.

This case declares that “interrogation” by the police does not simply mean asking direct questions. In this case, the police had been told by the lawyers for the suspect that he was not to be interrogated while being transported from Davenport to Des Moines. The police assured the lawyers that Williams would not be interrogated. There was, in fact, no interrogation, but the police officer gave Williams what became known as the “Christian burial speech” in which he addressed Williams as “Reverend” and pleaded that “the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas Eve and murdered.” The Court said that the speech was the functional equivalent of an interrogation and therefore violated the suspect’s right to counsel.

For many more cases, see Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement, 8th ed., which includes short, easy-to-understand briefs of 185 cases of primary importance to law enforcement officials.


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