Harris v. New York 401 U.S. 222 (1971)

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HARRIS v. NEW YORK 401 U.S. 222 (1971)

This case is significant as a limitation on miranda v. arizona (1966). Harris sold narcotics to undercover police officers. The police failed to inform him, after his arrest, that he had a right to counsel during a custodial police interrogation and they ignored his request for an attorney. Harris eventually admitted that he had acted as an intermediary, buying heroin for the undercover agent, but he denied selling it to the agent. During the trial Harris contradicted the statement that he had made during interrogation; the judge overruled defense objections that the custodial statement was inadmissible under the miranda rules because it was made involuntarily and in violation of his rights. The judge instructed the jury that although the statement was unavailable as evidence of guilt, they might consider it in assessing Harris's credibility as a witness.

The Supreme Court, 5–4, upheld Harris's conviction. Miranda dissenters john marshall harlan, byron r. white, and potter j. stewart along with Justice harry a. blackmun joined in Chief Justice warren e. burger's opinion holding that testimony secured without the necessary warnings could nevertheless be used to impeach contradictory testimony at trial. Burger flatly asserted that Harris made "no claim that the unwarned statements were coerced or involuntary"—a statement clearly controverted by the record. Burger also dismissed, as obiter dictum, the assertion in Miranda that all such statements were inadmissible for any purpose. The majority relied heavily on Walder v. United States (1954), in which evidence secured in an unreasonable search was admitted to impeach testimony although the exclusionary rule would have prohibited its use as evidence of guilt.

Justice william j. brennan, dissenting, said that Miranda prohibited the use of any statements obtained in violation of its guarantees and denied the contention that that was obiter dictum. Brennan also distinguished Walder: the statement there had no connection to the crime with which the defendant had been charged; in Harris the defendant's statements related directly to the crime. Moreover, the evidence there could have been used to assess credibility; here the jury could have misused it as evidence of guilt because the statement provided information about the crime charged.

David Gordon


Levy, Leonard W. 1974 Against the Law: The Nixon Court and Criminal Justice. New York: Harper & Row.

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Harris v. New York 401 U.S. 222 (1971)

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