Miranda v. Arizona

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Miranda v. Arizona (consolidated with Westover v. United States, Vignera v. New York, and California v. Stewart), Template:Ussc, was a landmark 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court which was argued February 28March 1, 1966 and decided June 13, 1966. The Court held that suspects, prior to being interrogated by police, must be informed of their rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Missing image
Ernesto Miranda

Prior history

The Legal Aid Movement

During the 1960s, a movement to provide indigent defendants with legal aid emerged from the collective efforts of various public interest groups.

In the civil realm, it led to the creation of the ancestor of the Legal Services Corporation under the Great Society program of President Lyndon B. Johnson (although LSC as it exists today would not be created until 1974). In the criminal realm, the movement was bolstered by such Supreme Court decisions as Gideon v. Wainwright, Template:Ussc, that held that indigent defendants had a right to be provided with counsel. Drawing on Gideon, the Supreme Court, in Escobedo v. Illinois, Template:Ussc, a case which closely foreshadowed Miranda, held that defendants in custody had a right to consult with their attorneys, even before they were indicted.

This reform impulse extended to a concern over police interrogation practices, which were considered by many to be barbaric and unjust. Coercive interrogation tactics were known in period slang as the "third degree."

Reformers believed that the accused would not be trapped into giving a confession, and the adversarial process would be better served, if accused criminals were to be provided with a lawyer. As early as 1952, Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover stated that

Special Agents are taught that any suspect or arrested person, at the outset of an interview, must be advised that he is not required to make a statement and that any statement given can be used against him in court. Moreover, the individual must be informed that, if he desires, he may obtain the services of an attorney of his own choice.

However, state reform efforts lagged behind federal efforts. Miranda would constitutionalize the reform impulse.

The bench

The makeup of the Supreme Court and their opinions were:


Concurring in part; Dissenting in part


  1. Written by: Justice John Marshall Harlan II
  2. Written by: Justice White
    • Joined by: Justices Harlan and Stewart

The case


In 1963, Ernesto Miranda, an Arizona native with only an elementary school education, was arrested for robbery, kidnapping, and rape. He was interrogated by police and confessed. At trial, prosecutors offered only his confession as evidence. Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 20 to 30 years on both charges. Miranda's lawyer, Alvin Moore, appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court but the charges were upheld.


Chief Justice Warren, a former prosecutor, delivered the opinion of the Court, ruling that due to the coercive nature of custodial interrogation by police (to bolster his point, Warren controversially cited several police training manuals), no confession could be admissible under the Fifth Amendment self-incrimination clause and Sixth Amendment right to an attorney unless a suspect had been made aware of his rights and the suspect had then waived them. Thus, Miranda's conviction was overturned.

The Supreme Court set down a set of guidelines for custodial interrogations. The ruling stated:

The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.

The Supreme Court also made clear what had to happen if the suspect chose to exercise his rights:

If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease ... If the individual states that he wants an attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present. At that time, the individual must have an opportunity to confer with the attorney and to have him present during any subsequent questioning.

Although the ACLU had urged the Supreme Court to require the mandatory presence of a "station-house" lawyer at all police interrogations, Warren refused to go that far, or to even include a suggestion that immediately demanding a lawyer would be in the suspect's best interest. Either measure would make interrogations useless because any competent defense attorney would instruct his client to say nothing to the police.

However, the dissenting justices thought that the suggested warnings would ultimately lead to such a drastic effect — they apparently believed that once warned, suspects would always demand attorneys and deny the police the ability to seek confessions—and accordingly accused the majority of overreacting to the problem of coercive interrogations.

In dissent, Justice Harlan wrote that "nothing in the letter or the spirit of the Constitution or in the precedents squares with the heavy-handed and one-sided action that is so precipitously taken by the Court in the name of fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities". Harlan closed his remarks by quoting former Justice Robert H. Jackson: "This Court is forever adding new stories to the temples of constitutional law, and the temples have a way of collapsing when one story too many is added".

Justice White, in his dissent, criticized the Court's new "bright-line rule" for undermining effective law enforcement and marginalizing the rights of society to be free of crime:

In some unknown number of cases the Court's rule will return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets and to the environment which produced him, to repeat his crime whenever it pleases him. As a consequence, there will not be a gain, but a loss, in human dignity. The real concern is not the unfortunate consequences of this new decision on the criminal law as an abstract, disembodied series of authoritative proscriptions, but the impact on those who rely on the public authority for protection and who without it can only engage in violent self-help with guns, knives and the help of their neighbors similarly inclined. There is, of course, a saving factor: the next victims are uncertain, unnamed and unrepresented in this case.

Miranda was retried, and this time the police did not use the confession but called witnesses and used other evidence. Miranda was convicted, and served 11 years.

Effects of the decision

Following the Miranda decision, the nation's police departments were required to inform arrested persons of their rights under the ruling, termed a Miranda warning.

The Miranda decision was widely criticized when it came down, as many felt it was unfair to inform accused criminals of their rights, as outlined in the decision. Richard M. Nixon and other conservatives denounced Miranda for undermining the efficacy of the police, and argued the ruling would contribute to an increase in crime. Nixon, upon becoming President, promised to appoint judges who would be "strict constructionists" and who would exercise judicial restraint. Many supporters of law enforcement were angered by the decision's negative view of police officers. The federal Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 purported to overrule Miranda for federal criminal cases and restore the "totality of the circumstances" test that had prevailed previous to Miranda. This validity of this provision of the law, which is still codified at 18 U.S. Code 3501 (http://assembler.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode18/usc_sec_18_00003501----000-.html), was not ruled on for another 30 years because the Justice Department never attempted to rely on it to support the introduction of a confession into evidence at any criminal trial. Miranda was undermined by several subsequent decisions which seemed to grant several exceptions to the "Miranda warnings", undermining its claim to be necessary corollary of the Fifth Amendment.

As the years wore on, however, Miranda grew to be familiar and widely accepted. Due to the prevalence of American television police dramas made since that decision in which the police read suspects their "Miranda rights", it has become an expected element of arrest procedure around the world. As a result of the case, the American English vocabulary has acquired a new verb, "to mirandize" meaning to read to a suspect, held in custody, his Miranda rights. Americans began to feel that the warnings contributed to the legitimacy of police interrogations.

Subsequent history

Since the original decision, courts have ruled that the warning must be "meaningful", so it is usually required that the suspect be asked if he understands his rights. Courts have also ruled that any subsequent waiver of Miranda rights must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Many American police departments have pre-printed Miranda waiver forms which a suspect must sign and date (after hearing and reading the warnings again) before an interrogation can proceed.

But the words "knowing, intelligent, and voluntary" mean only that the suspect reasonably appears to understand what he is doing, and is not being coerced into signing the waiver; the Court ruled in Colorado v. Connelly (1986) that it is completely irrelevant if the suspect may actually have been insane at the time.

A confession obtained in violation of the Miranda standards may nonetheless be used for purposes of impeaching the defendant's testimony: that is, if the defendant takes the stand at trial and the prosecution wishes to introduce his confession as a prior inconsistent statement to attack his credibility, the Miranda holding will not prohibit this. (Harris v. New York Template:Ussc)

A "spontaneous" statement made by a defendant while in custody, even though the defendant has not been given the Miranda warnings or has invoked the right to counsel and a lawyer is not yet present, is admissible in evidence, as long as the statement was not given in response to police questioning or other conduct by the police likely to produce an incriminating response. (Rhode Island v. Innis Template:Ussc)

There is also a "public safety" exception to the requirement that Miranda warnings be given before questioning: for example, if the defendant is in possession of information regarding the location of an unattended gun or there are other similar exigent circumstances which require protection of the public, the defendant may be questioned without warning and his responses, though incriminating, will be admissible in evidence. (New York v. Quarles Template:Ussc)

A number of empirical studies by both supporters and opponents of Miranda have concluded that the giving of Miranda warnings has little effect on whether a suspect agrees to speak to the police without an attorney. However, Miranda's opponents, notably law professor Paul Cassell, argue that letting go 3 or 4% of criminal suspects (who would be prosecuted otherwise but for defective Miranda warnings or waivers) is still too high a price to pay.

Miranda survived a strong challenge in Dickerson v. United States (2000), where the validity of Congress's overruling of Miranda was tested. At issue was whether the Miranda warnings were actually compelled by the U.S. Constitution, or were rather merely prophylactic measures enacted as a matter of judicial policy.

In Dickerson, the Court held 7-2 that the Miranda warnings were indeed required by the Constitution, speaking through Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Miranda warnings were not constitutional in nature, citing cases where the Court held the Miranda warnings to be unnecessary.

Dickerson reached the Court under a bizarre set of circumstances. Although the Justice Department under President Clinton had treated Miranda as valid, the Supreme Court was forced to grant certiorari to prevent a circuit split after the 4th Circuit (on its own initiative) took up Professor Cassell's suggestion and ruled that Congress had overruled Miranda with the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. The Solicitor General refused to defend the constitutionality of the Act, so the Court invited Professor Cassell to argue against the validity of Miranda.

The Justice Department's treatment of Miranda was not unusual. Most American law enforcement personnel now like Miranda, for one simple reason. After Miranda, it became very difficult for criminal defense attorneys to argue that a confession was not the product of free will, when the defendant's confession was preceded by at least two oral warnings (at arrest and in the interrogation room) and the act of reading and signing a waiver form (which included the warnings in writing).

Over time, interrogators began to think of clever techniques to honor the "letter" but not the "spirit" of Miranda. In the 2004 case of Missouri v. Seibert, the Supreme Court halted one of the most egregious practices. Missouri police were deliberately withholding Miranda warnings and questioning suspects until they obtained confessions, then giving the warnings, getting waivers, and getting confessions again. Justice Souter wrote for the plurality: "Strategists dedicated to draining the substance out of Miranda cannot accomplish by training instructions what Dickerson held Congress could not do by statute."

Sources and further reading

  • Stuart, Gary L. Miranda: The Story of America's Right to Remain Silent. University of Arizona Press: 2004. ISBN 0816523134.

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