- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006


The Supreme Court ruled against two foreign suspects yesterday who argued an international treaty required police to inform them of a right to contact their governments when they were arrested.

By a 6-3 vote, justices disagreed that a 1969 treaty signed by the United States and several other countries requires suspects to be informed of such a right.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the two men — one from Honduras, the other from Mexico — are not entitled to suppression of statements to police or another chance to raise objections based on the treaty after failing to do so at trial.

The chief justice said such remedies are too harsh for the treaty’s requirement — if it exists — that only deals with notification and does not require consulates to provide assistance to suspects.

The United States is one of 168 countries that signed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which requires “competent authorities” to tell a consulate when one of its citizens has been arrested.

But police in the United States do not routinely tell arrested foreign nationals they can call their consulates.

Even if police fail to inform suspects of a right to contact their consulates, Chief Justice Roberts said, the failure is unlikely to have any connection to the statements they make to officers or the evidence gathered in an investigation.

He said foreign suspects have the same protections that U.S. citizens have when arrested: the right to due process and the right to an attorney.

The chief justice went to great lengths to avoid being dismissive of international law, a sore point with conservatives who have accused the high court of relying too much on the laws of other nations in high-profile cases.

“Our holding in no way disparages the importance of the Vienna Convention,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer criticized the majority for dodging the big issue of whether foreign suspects can claim a treaty violation if police fail to inform them of their rights to contact their governments.

Justice Breyer said the majority decision is “unprecedented” because it ignores years of international law and “increases the difficulties” the United States will face in ensuring that its citizens — when arrested abroad — are treated fairly.

In other action yesterday, the court ruled that Pennsylvania officials did not violate the free-speech rights of troublesome inmates by keeping secular newspapers and magazines away from them.

By a 6-2 vote the justices said the state could use newspapers as incentives to get inmates in a high-security unit to behave themselves.

But Justice Breyer wrote that Pennsylvania’s win could be short-lived, depending on whether there is another constitutional challenge to the high-security unit’s rules. He said that “prison officials, relying on their professional judgment, reached an experience-based conclusion that the policies help to further legitimate prison objectives.”

The high court’s ruling could have affected prison operations nationwide if justices had required state officials to prove that their policies serve legitimate security and rehabilitative interests.

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