Crooker v. California
Decided on June 30, 1958; 357 US 433

Law student appeals murder conviction claiming his due process rights were infringed


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (Procedure), 14th Amendment


B. Legal Question Presented:

1) Was the defendant denied due process of law by the refusal of the investigating officers to allow him to consult with an attorney upon his demand to do so while he was in custody?

2) Was the defendant denied due process of law by admitting into evidence a confession which was taken from him while in custody, after he had been in custody for fourteen hours and had not been allowed to consult with his attorney?


A. Background:

The body of a stabbed and strangled murder victim was discovered. Petitioner Crooker, roommate of the victim and ex-law student, was arrested later that same day. While in custody at the Los Angeles Police Station, petitioner refused to submit to a lie detector test and requested to call an attorney. However, records indicate that his request was ignored.

Petitioner was later interrogated by four officers. Again petitioner requested an attorney but was told that he could call an attorney after the investigation concluded.  He was then transferred to another police station and questioned by five officers from 11 pm to shortly after midnight. Petitioner was then booked, physically examined, and questioned again by the five officers from 1-2 am.  After the final interrogation, petitioner wrote and signed a confession. He was then taken to the scene of the crime to reenact the crime.

At 5am he was jailed and permitted to sleep. The following day petitioner was asked to orally repeat the confession, however he refused to do so and asked again for an attorney.  Petitioner finally saw an attorney that evening, and was legally represented from that point forward.

 Petitioner was convicted of murder in a California state court and sentenced to death.  The Supreme Court of California affirmed his conviction.  Appealing again, petitioner claimed that his conviction violated his 14th Amendment right to due process because the confession admitted into evidence had been coerced from him by state authorities.  He argued that even if his confession was deemed voluntary, it occurred while he was without counsel due to the denial of his request for an attorney. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Mr. Robert W. Armstrong argued the cause for petitioner.
Mr. William E. James argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Edmund G. Brown, William B. McKesson and Fred N. Whichello.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
A.L. Wirin and Fred Okrand filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of petitioner urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were written on behalf of the respondent.

"The bare fact of police 'detention and police examination in private of one in official state custody' does not render involuntary a confession by the one so detained.  Neither does an admonition by the police to tell the truth, nor the failure of state authorities to comply with local statutes requiring that an accused promptly be brought before a magistrate.

Petitioner's claim of coercion, then, depends almost entirely on denial of his request to contact counsel. This Court has not previously had occasion to determine the character of a confession obtained after such a denial. But we have held that confessions made by indigent defendants prior to state appointment of counsel are not thereby rendered involuntary, even in prosecutions where conviction without counsel would violate due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. To be sure, coercion seems more likely to result from state denial of a specific request for opportunity to engage counsel than it does from state failure to appoint counsel immediately upon arrest. That greater possibility, however, is not decisive. It is negated here by petitioner's age, intelligence, and education. While in law school, he had studied criminal law; indeed, when asked to take the lie detector test, he informed the operator that the results of such a test would not be admissible at trial absent a stipulation by the parties. Supplementing that background is the police statement to petitioner well before his confession that he did not have to answer questions.  Moreover, the manner of his refusals to answer indicates full awareness of the right to be silent. On this record, we are unable to say that petitioner's confession was anything other than voluntary...

We turn now to the contention that, even if the confession be voluntary, its use violates due process because it was obtained after denial of petitioner's request to contact his attorney... The sum total of the circumstances here during the time petitioner was without counsel is a voluntary confession by a college-educated man with law school training who knew of his right to keep silent. Such facts, while perhaps a violation of California law, do not approach the prejudicial impact in House v. Mayo, and do not show petitioner to have been so ‘taken advantage of,’ as to violate due process of law. Affirmed."

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Clark, T.  Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burton, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Whittaker, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the California Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.