Corley v. United States


Whether federal law requires that a confession taken more than six hours after a defendant's arrest, and before the defendant appears before the magistrate judge, must be suppressed if there was unreasonable delay in bringing the defendant before the judge.

Oral argument: 
January 21, 2009

When Johnnie Corley was arrested for assaulting an officer and interrogated about the robbery of a credit union, he did not confess to a role in the robbery until more than six hours after his arrest. Moreover, Corley did not appear before a magistrate judge until the next day. After the District Court found Corley guilty, the Third Circuit affirmed. Corley is now appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States. His case will determine whether, if there was unreasonable delay in bringing a suspect before a magistrate judge, the suspect's confession is still valid. The Supreme Court's decision will affect suspects' rights and the procedure that police must follow during a confession.

    Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

    Whether 18 U.S.C. § 3501 - read together with Fed. R. Crim. P. Rule 5(a), McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), and Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957) - requires that a confession taken more than six hours after arrest and before presentment be suppressed if there was unreasonable or unnecessary delay in bringing the defendant before the magistrate judge.


    Federal law enforcement officials identified Johnnie Corley as one of three men who robbed the Norsco Federal Credit Union in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on June 16, 2003. A Pennsylvania state court had an outstanding bench warrant for Corley for an unrelated matter, so on September 17, 2003, around 8:00 am, federal and state law enforcement officials attempted to arrest Corley. Corley tried to flee, and, in the course of resisting arrest, had a "physical altercation with an FBI agent." As a result of the altercation, when the officers arrested Corley around 11:45 am, they took him to a hospital for medical attention, where Corley got stitches. At 3:30 pm, the officials took Corley to the FBI office in Philadelphia. The officials told Corley that he was under arrest for assaulting an officer and was under investigation for a robbery. The officials interrogated Corley about his role in the Norristown robbery, and at 5:07 pm, Corley signed a waiver of rights (including his right to silence and his right to counsel). Corley then orally confessed to the robbery. The next day, at 10:30 am, Corley signed a written confession. At 1:30 pm on September 18, Corley appeared before a federal magistrate judge, who informed Corley of his rights.

    On November 20, 2003, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a three-count indictment against Corley. The charges were "conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count One), armed bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(d) (Count Two), and the use and carrying of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count Three)." Corley moved to suppress his oral and written confessions under Rule 5(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; the court denied his motion. On September 27-28, 2004, a jury convicted Corley of Counts One and Two and acquitted him of Count Three.

    On December 21, 2004, the District Court sentenced Corley to 170 months in prison. The Court also required Corley to pay $47,532.36 in restitution to Cumis Insurance. Finally, Corley also received five years of supervised release, a fine of $5,000, and a special assessment of $200.

    Corley appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which affirmed everything except the judgment of restitution. He then appealed except the judgment of restitution. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari on October 1, 2008.


    Constitutional and Statutory Background

    The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects criminal defendants from having to testify against themselves. Thus, confessions made to police and investigators may only be used against defendants in trials if they were made voluntarily, and not under coercion.

    Within these constitutional bounds, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure govern the initiation of a federal prosecution. . When the federal government arrests someone for a serious crime without a warrant, it can fully investigate and try the defendant only after bringing him before a magistrate judge who informs the defendant of his rights and determines whether there is sufficient basis for the arrest. ; Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(a) requires that this so-called presentment or arraignment occur without unnecessary delay.

    A related, court-made rule known as the McNabb-Mallory doctrine (or "Mallory") prohibits federal trial judges from admitting into evidence confessions obtained during an unnecessary (or "unreasonable" or "undue") delay. Together, these rules protect defendants from being pressured into giving pre-presentment confessions, either by police interrogation or by the "inherently coercive" effect of being in police custody.

    In 1968, Congress passed an additional rule on the admissibility of confessions, which appears in 18 USC § 3501(a-c) ("§ 3501").

    • § 3501(a) provides that a confession is admissible if a judge determines it was voluntarily given;
    • § 3501(b) requires that trial judges determining voluntariness consider all circumstances of the confession, including any delay in presentment;
    • § 3501(c) says a confession made within six hours of arrest "shall not be inadmissible solely because of delay" in presentment, if the confession was voluntary; it also makes the six hour "time limitation" inapplicable if a judge finds the time lapse was reasonable for transporting the defendant to the nearest available magistrate.

    Circuit courts have reached mixed conclusions on whether and to what extent § 3501 overrules Mallory. Corley v. United States will determine what remains of the McNabb-Mallory doctrine today.

    The Petitioner, Johnnie Corley, argues that Mallory survives outside the six-hour window. The Respondents, the United States ("the government"), contend that § 3501 entirely overrules Mallory by making voluntariness the only possible grounds for suppressing or excluding pre-presentment confessions, and makes undue delay merely a consideration for determining voluntariness of confessions made more than six hours after arrest.

    Interpreting the Text of 18 U.S.C. § 3501(a-c)

    In Corley's view, the plain language of § 3501(c) means that confessions given more than six hours after arrest can still be suppressed based solely on unduly delayed presentment. . He reasons that if voluntariness were the only grounds for suppression, Congress would not have made admissibility a function of both voluntariness "and" presentment within six hours of arrest in § 3501(c).

    To support his reading of § 3501, Corley relies on the principle that Congress chooses its wording precisely, so if two terms in a provision are potentially superfluous or conflicting, each term should be read to have its own independent significance. Thus, Corley argues that because § 3501(b) establishes delay as a consideration in determining voluntariness, § 3501(c) must do something more, making undue delay its own grounds for suppressing confessions given after more than six hours. He also posits that if Congress had intended to limit delay to being a factor of involuntariness, it would have drafted § 3501(c) to say that a confession made within six hours shall not be "involuntary" based solely on undue delay, whereas Congress instead chose the word "inadmissible." Similarly, Corley contends that making transportation a possible justification for delay beyond six hours would be a useless detail if delay were not a basis for suppression.

    For its part, the government argues that the plain language of § 3501 entirely overrules Mallory because it does not authorize the exclusion of any voluntary confessions as Mallory did, but only mandates when confessions must be admitted. According to the government, the language of § 3105(c) does not compel the negative implication that Corley draws from it: that because § 3501(c) says delay cannot be the sole basis of exclusion inside the six-hour window, delay can be the sole basis of exclusion for confessions made outside that timeframe. They argue that, on the contrary, there is no room for the idea that voluntary confessions made after six hours could be suppressed solely because of delay, since § 3501(a) makes voluntary confessions admissible. Moreover, the government notes that Congress created an exclusionary rule prohibiting the use of evidence obtained via unlawful wiretapping as part of the same Public Law that contained § 3501, and argues that if Congress had meant to provide for the exclusion of evidence based purely on undue delay in § 3105, it would have done so expressly.

    The government also responds that its reading of § 3105 does not render subsection (c) superfluous or inconsistent with (a) and (b). Rather, they say § 3105 (c) clarifies the application of (a) and (b) in particular circumstances; delay is a factor of voluntariness, but delay cannot be the sole basis for finding a confession involuntary if it is made within six hours of arrest. The government also argues that the use of "inadmissible" rather than "involuntary" in any given clause is irrelevant because subsection (a) makes voluntariness and admissibility synonymous. Moreover, the government reasons that, if (a) and (b) addressed voluntariness while (c) addressed delay as a separate basis of suppression as Corley proposes, there would be no need to restate the voluntariness requirement in (c).

    Legislative History of 18 U.S.C. § 3501(a-c)

    Corley argues that the legislative history of § 3501 shows that Congress only intended to prevent the McNabb-Mallory doctrine from operating within six hours of arrest, leaving the doctrine untouched outside that window. Noting that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted separately on subsections (a) and (b), and then on (c), he argues that, if Congress thought (a) and (b) had completely overruled Mallory by making voluntariness the sole grounds for suppression, there would have been no need for a separate debate and vote about (c). Moreover, says Corley, the debate that engendered the final version of § 3105 confirms that Congress intended to strike a compromise between annulling Mallory as one proposal would have done, and maintaining Mallory outside a shorter window of time as a recent D.C. Crime Act had done. Corley finds support in the recorded words of Senators who presented and discussed various proposals in terms of their effect on Mallory and their relation to the D.C. Crime Act.

    The government cites remarks on the House floor which characterized § 3105 as overruling Mallory, to which Corley replies that the statements made on the Senate floor are more authoritative because that is where the language of the bill originated. However, the government also questions whether that D.C. Crime Act in fact maintained Mallory at all, and contends that Corley's assessment of the legislative history of that bill should not be considered evidence of the intent behind § 3501.

    The government further argues that, even if Congress intended for § 3501 to leave the McNabb-Mallory doctrine intact outside the six-hour window, it overruled the court's exclusionary doctrine with Federal Rule of Evidence ("FRE") 402, in 1975. The rule provides that all relevant evidence is admissible in a federal court unless rendered inadmissible by the FRE themselves, the Constitution, an Act of Congress, or the Supreme Court acting on congressional authority. Since non-constitutional rules created by court decision, like Mallory, are not among the possible sources of exclusionary rules, the government argues that Mallory cannot remain after FRE 402.

    Constitutional Considerations

    According to Corley, the government's interpretation must fail because it runs afoul of the Constitution. He argues that restricting the grounds upon which courts can exclude confessions violates Fifth Amendment protections. The government retorts that, under its reading, § 3501 validly overrules the Mallory procedural rule, not any constitutional rule; moreover, it creates no constitutionality problem absent any contention that a delay of less than six hours, alone, could coerce a defendant into an involuntary confession.


    Constitutional Arguments

    The Supreme Court's decision in Corley v. United States will determine the constitutionality of certain law enforcement actions. In an amicus brief for Corley, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL") and the National Association of Federal Defenders ("NAFD") argue that if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the government, all suspects' privileges against self-incrimination and right to counsel will be abrogated. NACDL and NAFD cite studies that show that criminal defendants are more likely to "waive their rights and to offer a confession . . . after a prolonged period of pre-presentation detention." Moreover, innocent suspects are more likely to waive their rights than guilty suspects, increasing the likelihood of false confessions. An increased number of false confessions would lead to more innocent people being convicted for crimes they did not commit. The organizations attribute the tendency of detained suspects to waive their rights to the highly coercive atmosphere in police custody. NACDL and NAFD explain that the Supreme Court created Miranda rights in response to this compulsive environment during police interrogation. To rule against Corley, they argue, would remove the system in place to counteract coercive police pressure after an arrest.

    In response, the government points to the high cost of general exclusionary rules. In this case, the government argues, there is a high cost associated with excluding voluntary confessions, as there is with the exclusion of any evidence. Moreover, just because a suspect confesses after more than six hours in police custody does not mean that the confession is false. Finally, the government contends that there is no longer any need for suspects to appear before magistrate judges within six hours of arrest because law enforcement officers are required to inform suspects of their rights.

    A Bright-Line Rule

    NACDL and NAFD also argue that Corley is offering the court a bright-line rule, which would be easy for courts, law enforcement, and lawyers to understand and apply. Corley's proposed rule is: "If less than six hours elapses between arrest and confession, the delay in presentment is insufficient alone to render any statement inadmissible and the court conducts to a [sic] voluntariness analysis. If more than six hours elapses, the resulting confession is inadmissible . . . , unless specific, congressionally-sanctioned exceptions are met." Moreover, NACDL and NAFD contend that adoption of this bright-line rule would comport with the relevant statute. A bright-line rule would "avoid[] the uncertain and difficult assessments necessary for an ad hoc voluntariness analysis."

    In response, the government points out that law enforcement officials can adopt this bright-line rule if they desire. But, the government claims, "society should not be compelled to pay the price of excluded confessions in order to enforce such a rule." Finally, the government disputes the claim that Corley's proposed rule is actually that clear.


    This case presents the Supreme Court with a subtle question of statutory interpretation that could have a profound impact on the admissibility of confessions made by defendants after arrest but before presentment to a magistrate judge, and thus on federal police procedure following arrest . Corley argues that the relevant statutes should be read to allow the suppression of pre-presentment confessions made more than six hours after arrest, even absent a finding that the confession was involuntary. Under the United State's reading, no confession could be suppressed unless it were determined to have been involuntary, and delay in presentment is just one factor in that determination. The decision will weigh society's interest in providing maximal protection to federal defendants against its interest in rendering justice based on voluntary confessions.

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