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Miranda v. Arizona
[384 U.S. 436]
Warren Court,  Decided 5-4,  6/13/1966
Read the actual decision

Next to Roe v. Wade, Miranda is probably the best-known Supreme Court decision today. Although the decision has had far-reaching effects on law enforcement, it is nowhere near as broad in its ramifications as, say, Griswold or Jones v. Mayer. Its fame mainly derives from the so-called "Miranda Warnings", repeated so often on television and in print as to become a figment of American culture.

The Miranda case does not deal widely with the rights of the accused, but rather narrowly with the admissibility of confessions. Prior to this decision, confessions had been admissible in court if they were deemed to be "voluntary", a consideration taken in totality of the circumstances surrounding the defendant's questioning and eventual confession. If police methods were deemed to be too coercive, then the confession was found to be involuntary, and tossed out. The Fifth Amendment, which protects a person's right not to testify against himself, was viewed as a guarantee against legal coercion -- i.e. the threat of perjury or contempt of court -- being used to extract incriminating testimony. It was not considered to be applicable to the police interrogation room where, usually unknown to the accused, the police had no legal power to enforce cooperation.

Miranda was an Arizona immigrant with a grade-school education, accused by police of involvement in a rape-kidnapping. Taken downtown from his home, he was identified by the victim and interrogated by police. Initially maintaining his innocence, he eventually signed a confession, which was admitted as evidence in the trial that subsequently convicted him.

What Miranda may or may not have been told about his rights is not fully known, but police did admit that they never advised him of his right to counsel during interrogation. Although his questioning had been relatively mild, and therefore acceptable under the "voluntary confession" standard, Miranda's appeal to the Supreme Court resulted in standards that his confession could not meet, and it was ruled inadmissible.

In a very tense and close decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren spelled out the Court's new requirements for the protection of the accused's Fifth Amendment rights:

  • The Amendment applies to all venues, and to informal as well as formal coercion. This specifically extends the right against self-incrimination to the interrogation room.
  • Because of the unusual and intimidating circumstances in which an arrested person finds himself, special protections are needed for his Fifth Amendment rights. Any confession gained in such a hostile environment, without those protections, is inadmissible.
  • Although enforcement personnel can use various methods to provide adequate protections for the accused, unless the methods employed at least cover the following four points, they are insufficient:

    1. "You have the right to remain silent."
    2. "Anything you say can and will be used against you."
    3. "You have a right to talk to a lawyer before being questioned and to have him present when you are being questioned."
    4. "If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you before any questioning if you so desire."

One will quickly see that, rather than complicate matters even further, virtually all enforcement agencies adopted the new "Miranda Warnings" almost exactly as proposed by the Court, without embellishment. Once the authorities ascertain from the suspect's response to the warning that he understands his rights, they are free to inquire if he wishes to waive them.

As originally decided, Miranda did leave some wiggle room for authorities. It did not prohibit police from conducting on-the-scene questioning without the warnings. It allowed police to question suspects in their homes or offices without the warnings, as long as the suspect was free to terminate the questioning. Most of all, it did not -- though it probably would have if practical -- restrain police from acquiring waivers of rights from suspects who, despite the intent of the Court, were still reacting to the pressure of the situation. Critics have suggested that waivers should either be taped, or required to be witnessed by an attorney.

Reportedly studies have shown that, in the decades since Miranda, the tendency of suspects to make incriminating statements to police has not declined significantly. Naturally the decision has opened up whole new avenues of law for criminal defense attorneys.

Lately there is a fresh move afoot to try to overturn Miranda, or at least have it redefined to make things a bit easier on authorities, and a bit tougher for the guilty to escape through loopholes. Whether the High Court will accept such an argument depends, of course, on how it is framed constitutionally, as well as the makeup of the Court.

Meanwhile, you have the right to remain silent ...

Comment on this Decision

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     ... or on subject Rights of Accused    Find other Documents
     ... or on subject 5th Amendment    Find other Documents

Write your Congressmen on this issue.

Other decisions pertaining to Rights of Accused:

Betts v. Brady    [316 U.S. 455 (1942)]  Stone Court
Branzburg v. Hayes    [408 U.S. 665 (1972)]  Burger Court
Brown v. Mississippi    [297 U.S. 278 (1936)]  Hughes Court
Estes v. Texas    [381 U.S. 532 (1905)]  Warren Court
Gideon v. Wainwright    [372 U.S. 335 (1963)]  Warren Court
Mapp v. Ohio    [367 U.S. 643 (1961)]  Warren Court
McCardle, Ex Parte    [74 U.S. 506 (1869)]  Chase Court
Milligan, Ex Parte    [71 U.S. 2 (1866)]  Chase Court
Weeks v. United States    [232 U.S. 383 (1914)]  White Court

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