WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled against two foreign suspects Wednesday who argued an international treaty required police to inform them that they had a right to contact their governments when they were arrested.
By a 6-3 vote, justices did not decide whether 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 Roberts 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.
Roberts 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, Roberts said, the failure is unlikely to have any connection to the statements they make to officers or the evidence gathered in an investigation.
Roberts 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 subject 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," Roberts wrote.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sided with Roberts in ruling against the two foreign suspects. But she parted with the majority, saying there may be times when suppression of statements made to police might be necessary.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen 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.
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 2004, the Supreme Court dodged another case dealing with a similar issue.
In this case, Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a Mexican national, sought to suppress incriminating statements he made after his arrest for wounding an Oregon police officer in 1999. He was given — and waived — a Miranda warning, but he was not told he could contact the Mexican consulate.
Mario Bustillo, a citizen of Honduras, wanted a new trial so he could present newly discovered evidence that another Honduran committed the crime. The Honduran government said had it been contacted at the time, it could have helped locate the other suspect, who had returned to Honduras after the killing.
The cases are Bustillo v. Johnson, 05-51, and Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, 04-10566.