Supreme Court Cases

Escobedo v. Illinois, 1964

Historical Background

Between 1961 and 1969, the Supreme Court handed down a series of rulings that extended constitutional standards of due process to all States, and forced the American criminal justice system to apply stricter standards regarding the rights of the accused. Beginning with Mapp, 1961 (search and seizure restrictions), and Gideon, 1963 (the right to legal counsel), the Court began to eliminate State court and police practices that it viewed as violations of the due process guarantees in the Constitution. By the end of the 1960s, the Court had established a "minimum standard of fairness" which all courts whether federal or State, would be required to meet. The case of Escobedo v. Illinois provided another landmark in the evolution of the Court's standard.

Circumstances of the Case

Danny Escobedo was taken into custody by Chicago police at 2:30 A.M. on January 20 in connection with the shooting of one of his relatives the night before. After a one-hour interrogation, and without an attorney to represent him, Escobedo was released, having made no self-incriminating statements. When police later arrested Benedict DiGerlando, a friend of Escobedo, DiGerlando told police that Escobedo had fired the fatal shots, and Escobedo was arrested once again. Police told him that, "although not formally charged, he was in custody and couldn't walk out the door."

Escobedo's lawyer arrived shortly after his client had been taken into custody the second time. The attorney was repeatedly denied permission to talk to Escobedo, who was interrogated all night, from nine o'clock at night until five o'clock in the morning. Escobedo asked to speak with his lawyer "repeatedly," but the police kept telling him that his lawyer did not want to see him. Throughout the interrogation, the suspect was kept standing, hands cuffed behind his back. He was told that DiGerlando had accused him of the murder. Allowed to confront his accuser, Escobedo told DiGerlando, "I didn't kill Manuel, you did it." Becoming more emotional, Escobedo made statements concerning his connection with the crime which were later used to convict him of murder in an Illinois court.

Constitutional Issues

The case centered on the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination and the 6th Amendment right to legal counsel. At what point must an accused person be afforded counsel in a State prosecution? Was a confession gained without the aid of legal counsel admissible in a State court? Should Escobedo be given a second trial? Did the police act properly or were their actions a violation of Escobedo's rights against self-incrimination? Did the State Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment have a bearing on this case?


For Escobedo: Denying Escobedo the right to consult with an attorney was a clear violation of his right to due process. His confession had been coerced and was thus inadmissible. His conviction was faulty, and the resulting verdict should be overturned. Escobedo should have a new trial.

For Illinois: The criminal procedures used in the courts of the State of Illinois rest upon the sovereignty of that State, and are part of the powers reserved to Illinois by the 10th Amendment. The authority to specify the criminal procedures to be used in State courts is clearly not vested in the Supreme Court. A decision in favor of Escobedo would therefore violate the basic plan of federalism.

Decision and Rationale

By a 5–4 margin, the Court deemed Escobedo's confession inadmissible, overturned his conviction, and ordered that he be given another trial. Speaking for the majority, Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote: "When [Escobedo] requested and was denied an opportunity to consult with his lawyer, the investigation had ceased to be a general investigation of 'an unsolved crime.'…[Escobedo] had become the accused…." As such, he was entitled to counsel. Goldberg also declared that, since Escobedo was "undoubtedly unaware that under Illinois law an admission of 'mere complicity' in the murder plot was legally as damaging as an admission of firing the fatal shots…[t]he 'guiding hand of counsel' was essential to advise [him] of his rights in this…situation."

Reflecting on past cases, Goldberg wrote: "This Court has also recognized that 'history amply shows that confessions have often been extorted to save law enforcement officials the trouble and effort of obtaining valid and independent evidence.'…No system worth preserving should have to fear that if an accused is permitted to consult with a lawyer, he will become aware of, and exercise, these rights."

Goldberg then moved on to write a carefully generalized statement of what would become "the Escobedo Rule"—an application of the "exclusionary rule" that bars from court evidence gained from a confession made without an attorney present. The Court's ruling in this case, however, was somewhat limited. It applied only to cases where certain specific conditions were present. First, a police investigation must have proceeded beyond the point of "a general inquiry into an unsolved crime," and must have "begun to focus on a particular suspect…."

Secondly, the suspect had to have "been taken into police custody" and been subject to "a process of interrogations that lends itself to eliciting incriminating statements…." Third, the suspect must have "requested and been denied an opportunity to consult with his lawyer, " while the police must "not have effectively warned him of his absolute constitutional right to remain silent…." Provided that all of the above conditions existed, the Court would find that "the accused has been denied the 'Assistance of Counsel' in violation of the Sixth Amendment as 'made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment,'…and [as such] no statement elicited by the police during the interrogation may be used against him at a criminal trial."

Questions for Discussion

  1. According to the Court's decisions written by Justice Goldberg, when does a citizen under arrest need the advice of a lawyer?
  2. Why should we worry about the "rights" of people who are under arrest for a crime?
  3. How would the "presumption of innocence," a basic element of due process, be used as an argument in this case?
  4. What arguments would you have presented to persuade the court not to interfere with Illinois court procedure?
  5. Do you think the close supervision of State courts by the Supreme Court has a tendency to undermine the authority of the States? What rule would you propose to limit Supreme Court intervention in the operation of State courts, State prisons, or State mental hospitals? Would such a rule be constitutional?