Massiah v. United States (1964)

Supreme Court of the United States

Winston Massiah v. United States 

Decided May 18, 1964 – 377 U.S. 201


Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

***In July a superseding indictment was returned, charging the petitioner and a man named Colson with the same substantive offense, and in separate counts charging the petitioner, Colson, and others with having conspired to possess narcotics aboard a United States vessel, and to import, conceal, and facilitate the sale of narcotics. The petitioner, who had retained a lawyer, pleaded not guilty and was released on bail, along with Colson.

A few days later, and quite without the petitioner’s knowledge, Colson decided to cooperate with the government agents in their continuing investigation of the narcotics activities in which the petitioner, Colson, and others had allegedly been engaged. Colson permitted an agent named Murphy to install a Schmidt radio transmitter under the front seat of Colson’s automobile, by means of which Murphy, equipped with an appropriate receiving device, could overhear from some distance away conversations carried on in Colson’s car.

On the evening of November 19, 1959, Colson and the petitioner held a lengthy conversation while sitting in Colson’s automobile, parked on a New York street. By prearrangement with Colson, and totally unbeknown to the petitioner, the agent Murphy sat in a car parked out of sight down the street and listened over the radio to the entire conversation. The petitioner made several incriminating statements during the course of this conversation. At the petitioner’s trial these incriminating statements were brought before the jury through Murphy’s testimony, despite the insistent objection of defense counsel. The jury convicted the petitioner of several related narcotics offenses, and the convictions were affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 

***We do not question that in this case, as in many cases, it was entirely proper to continue an investigation of the suspected criminal activities of the defendant and his alleged confederates, even though the defendant had already been indicted. All that we hold is that the defendant’s own incriminating statements, obtained by federal agents under the circumstances here disclosed, could not constitutionally be used by the prosecution as evidence against him at his trial.

Mr. Justice WHITE, with whom Mr. Justice CLARK and Mr. Justice HARLAN join, dissenting. [omitted]

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

Because under Massiah police cannot use undercover agents to question a suspect whose right to counsel has “attached,” two suspects in the same jail can have different rules apply to them. If one has been arrested but not yet indicted or brought before a judge, chances are that Miranda applies to her and ,Massiah does not. In that case, because undercover questioning is not “interrogation” under Miranda, a secret informant could freely question the suspect, with only the Due Process Clauses regulating the tactics. A cellmate who had been indicted—or for whom adversary proceedings had otherwise commenced—would be protected by Massiah doctrine, which applies regardless of whether a suspect is in custody.

In Brewer v. Williams, the Court was forced to decide whether to apply the Massiah doctrine in the case of a murder of a ten-year-old child. Perhaps because the straightforward application of the rule would lead to such an unappealing outcome—the state’s inability to punish a killer whose guilt was seemingly in little doubt—the case caused sharp disagreements among the Justices. 


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