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Posted Tuesday June 13, 2006 08:40 AM EDT

The Miranda Decision, 40 Years Later



Ernesto Miranda, in a 1963 prison photograph.
Ernesto Miranda, in a 1963 prison photograph.
(Arizona Department of Library Archives and Public Records)

“. . . Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” That mantra, a Supreme Court justice once estimated, is familiar to two billion people around the world, mostly from its regular recitation in television crime dramas. Of all the rights guaranteed under our Constitution, no other is pointed out as often or as clearly. Why?

In the case decided 40 years ago today that led to the ubiquity of the Miranda warning, the U.S. Supreme court held that the Fifth Amendment’s stipulation that a citizen not be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” was “the essential mainstay of our adversary system.” Miranda v. Arizona was a bitterly controversial decision of the Warren court, but in time it became what Justice Stephen Breyer called “a hallmark of American justice.”

Police investigating a series of robberies and rapes in Phoenix, Arizona, during the spring of 1962 were drawn to Ernesto Miranda because witnesses had spotted him driving a car in the vicinity of one of the crimes. The victims could not positively identify him in a lineup, but the police told him they did. He confessed, was convicted, and received a stiff sentence.

The courts had long held that forced confessions were not admissible as evidence. In a 1935 case in which three defendants were tortured by Mississippi sheriffs into confessing, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said that while individual states could regulate their own courts, they were obliged to follow due process. “The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand.” A statement had to be voluntary.

But what did voluntary mean? For a suspect held in police custody under intimidating circumstances, where did coercion begin? Justice Felix Frankfurter understood that the distinction between voluntary and coerced confessions “is not a matter of mathematical determination” but rested on psychological judgment.

The question was intimately entwined with the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to the accused of “assistance of counsel for his defense.” This right had been affirmed in the Scottsboro case of 1932, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the rape conviction of several Alabama youths because they had been denied adequate legal representation.

In the 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright, the court strengthened the right to counsel by ruling that a man convicted of robbery who could not afford a lawyer had to have one appointed for him by the state. A year later, when Danny Escobedo confessed to a Chicago murder after being denied a chance to see his lawyer, the court overturned his conviction, holding that in such an instance “no statement elicited by the police during the interrogation may be used against him.”

The Miranda case was the culmination of this trend toward, as Time magazine put it, “moving the constitution into the police station.” It evolved out of a growing realization that false confessions were not uncommon and that the police could coerce without resorting to the rubber hose. In the decision handed down on June 13, 1966, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the 5-4 majority, recognized that the “third degree” was a venerable tradition in American law enforcement (the term itself comes from the rigorous questioning of candidates for a high level of the Masonic order). “The very fact of custodial interrogation,” Warren found, “exacts a heavy toll on individual liberty and trades on the weakness of individuals.”

In order for a statement to be assumed voluntary, the suspect had to be informed of four things before being questioned: (1) his right to remain silent, (2) the fact that his statements could be used against him, (3) his right to the presence of an attorney, and (4) the obligation of the state to provide counsel if he couldn’t afford it.

The decision did Ernesto Miranda little good. He was retried without the confession and again convicted. He served almost 10 years before being paroled. He briefly traded on his celebrity by selling autographed “Miranda warning” cards in Phoenix for $1.50 each.

The Miranda decision immediately became part of the struggle during the 1960s between civil libertarians and advocates of law and order. Dissenting justices wrote that “the decision of the Court represents poor constitutional law and entails harmful consequences for the country at large.” Opponents of the ruling thought it absurd to require police in effect to coach witnesses not to talk.

Congress, unnerved by rising crime rates and domestic unrest, acted two years after Miranda. As part of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, legislators essentially overturned the decision and returned procedures to the days when “voluntary” statements were judged according the “totality of circumstances” surrounding the interrogation. But wary prosecutors and police shunned the new law, fearing that its overruling of the courts might be unconstitutional and not wanting to be the ones to test it. So it was virtually never invoked, and it wasn’t brought before the Supreme Court for almost 32 years.

Accumulating evidence showed that Miranda didn’t hamstring the police as much as had been feared anyway. One study found that through 1988 fewer than one percent of criminal cases had been dismissed because of “unwarned confessions.”

Still, the perceived leniency toward wrongdoers rankled some. Asked whether suspects should have a lawyer present during questioning, then Attorney General Edwin Meese III declared in 1985, “Suspects who are innocent of a crime should.” Justice Antonin Scalia opined that the ruling had led to “the acquittal and the nonprosecution of many dangerous felons.”

Miranda—as well as the 1968 law that supposedly overturned it—faced its strongest challenge in a case decided by the Supreme Court in June 2000. Charles Dickerson had given statements to police implicating himself in a series of bank robberies around Alexandria, Virginia. He had not been read the Miranda warnings at the time. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judged Dickerson’s statement voluntary and therefore admissible under the 1968 law. Dickerson’s lawyer argued before the Supreme Court that any waiver of his Miranda rights had to be made “knowingly and intentionally, not just voluntarily.”

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held “that Miranda, being a constitutional decision of this Court, may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress.” The Dickerson ruling was an overwhelming affirmation of the right to remain silent in the face of police interrogation.

Though the Miranda warning has become a permanent part of our legal system, related issues continue to surface. Both the entanglement of military and legal procedures after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the increasingly global nature of national-security investigations have raised new questions about Miranda rights. The issue of self-incrimination arose in the prosecution of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh in 2002 but was rendered moot by Lindh’s guilty plea. The need to provide Miranda warnings to suspects apprehended overseas or in war zones remains a murky question.

As for Ernesto Miranda, shortly after his original release he was returned to jail on a parole violation. Freed for good in 1975, he was stabbed to death a year later in a bar brawl. The prime suspects in his killing were read their Miranda rights, did not implicate themselves, and were never prosecuted.

—Jack Kelly writes often for American Heritage magazine and is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and PyrotechnicsA History of the Explosive That Changed the World (Basic Books).

 
 
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