What Are Miranda Rights?
When the police arrest a criminal suspect in the United States, they must read them their rights. Thanks to Hollywood movies and television dramas, one of the most well known of these is “the right to remain silent”, and that anything they say can and will be used against them in court.
Have the police always had to read a suspect their rights when making an arrest? Did the police read a suspect the same rights a hundred years ago? For how many decades have the police done this, and why?
The police have read suspects their rights since as far back as the 1960s when important Supreme Court rulings made it necessary to do so. It is against the law and the constitution to fail to remind suspects of their rights. These rights are known as Miranda rights.
What Was the Miranda vs. Arizona Case?
In March 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested and charged with kidnapping and rape. He was taken from his home and into custody, where he wrote and signed a confession. Miranda was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He later appealed and claimed his constitutional rights were violated when he signed the damning confession as it was not truly voluntary. While the Supreme Court of Arizona rejected his appeal, the United States Supreme Court took another look at his case.
Did Miranda Go Free?
The Supreme Court heard the case in 1966 and narrowly ruled in his favor. The decision of Arizona’s Supreme Court was overturned.
Miranda did not walk free after winning the case at the Supreme Court, however. The state of Arizona retried him, this time arguing that he was guilty without using his confession as evidence. Other evidence was enough to convict him, and he was sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.
Which Judges Ruled For or Against Miranda?
Not every judge sided with Miranda. It was a close vote – five to four in his favor. Judges who voted against Miranda explained their rationale for not being on his side.
Justice Warren Argued in Favor of Miranda
After five Supreme Court justices, including Justice Warren, argued in Miranda’s favor, Warren wrote a statement detailing the majority opinion.
Warren argued that while some confessions extracted from suspects in custody could be used in court, police had to follow certain safeguards to obtain an admissible confession. The Fifth Amendment requires the right to a fair trial, and many police interrogation techniques violated this.
The Justice added, that a suspect must be informed of their Fifth Amendment rights before being interrogated, or the confession becomes inadmissible. The suspect should be made aware that they don’t have to answer questions that could incriminate themselves, and that police must accept the fact that a suspect can refuse to answer questions.
The suspect should be made aware that they have the right to a lawyer and must know that they can stop answering questions until a lawyer is present.
Justice Clark Ruled Against in Part
Clark believed that the Supreme Court’s new interpretation of the constitution made the system too restrictive. There were now too many ways for a confession to be thrown out in court. This risked limiting the effectiveness of criminal law enforcement.
Justice Harlan Argued Against
Harlan disagreed with the idea that the new restrictions discourage police brutality. He also argued that there is no precedent for interpreting the constitution in a way that the police can’t pressure a suspect to confess. He argued that the previous system for deciding whether or not confessions are admissible was adequate.
Justice White Ruled Against
Justice White argued that self-incrimination is only against the Fifth Amendment if the suspect is compelled to incriminate themselves. He also disagreed with the idea that interrogation is inherently coercive. White argued that many guilty criminals would get away with their crimes because of the new restrictions.
Why Was This Case Significant?
Since the Miranda vs. Arizona case, the police have more or less been required to advise suspects not to talk to them. While suspects had many rights protecting them from unjust laws, trials, and punishments under the constitution before the case, suspects often didn’t know about them. Since Miranda vs. Arizona, suspects have had to be made aware that they have the right to a lawyer and can refuse to answer questions.
Was the Constitution Previously Used to Limit Police Interrogation?
In the 1930s and before, the police often threatened suspects to get them to confess. Of course, this led to many false admissions of guilt.
The fear someone feels when they are confined and threatened can make them admit to something untrue even in the knowledge that it will lead to adverse consequences. Thinking can become impaired and suspects may do whatever they can to end such an uncomfortable situation and cooperate with someone they are in fear of.
Many people disapproved of this violence and the false confessions it led to. A 1936 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Mississippi, made it so that confessions obtained through physical violence were not allowed in court. Police brutality sometimes continued and still does, but this was a significant legal step forward.
Threats Continued in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s
While physical violence was harder for police to get away with after 1936, threats mainly remained legal. Police did not hurt suspects as much but still psychologically abused them. They were made to feel like they should confess or face the consequences.
Even without physical violence, intimidating a suspect is abusive and can lead to a false admission of guilt. This led to Supreme Court cases, which in turn brought about an increase in protections for people in police custody.
Important 1960s Cases Before Miranda
The Gideon vs. Wainwright case of 1963 gave suspects the right to a lawyer in state felony cases. Suspects hearing that they have the “right to remain silent” predates the Miranda case and comes from the Escobedo vs. Illinois case of 1964.
It is not surprising that the Miranda case happened and that the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. By the 1960s, the Supreme Court was obviously in favor of increasing the legal rights of those in police custody. The court had repeatedly made it clear that a suspect had Sixth Amendment rights and that a conviction might be overturned if police denied these rights.
How Important Is it to Limit Police Interrogation Techniques?
Sometimes, a suspect who falsely admits to a crime can receive a very long prison sentence. In 2006, a teenage boy admitted to killing a retiree, and he was given a sentence that would have kept him in prison into his fifties. It seemed like the case was closed – the murderer admitted it.
The boy had claimed that he and his friend borrowed a gun from a family member, robbed an old man, and killed him. The story was plausible, and the boy entered a guilty plea at trial. He was sentenced to 38 years.
One would assume that he could not have falsely confessed to such a crime, including making up a false story about how he committed the murder.
However, the story he told the police about events surrendering the murder was false, and the facts of the case were incompatible with the boy’s narrative.
A Confession Incompatible With the Evidence
Some of the evidence was so far from the boy’s story that it seemed hard to believe. His fingerprints could not be found anywhere. Instead, there were the fingerprints of an unknown person who had not been charged with any crime. His confession about where he got the gun was also false – his cousin had never owned the gun.
After being convicted and sentenced, he retracted his confession back. The police had the boy correct his story on a number of occasions until what he described was similar to what happened at the crime scene. The police acted like they already knew he was guilty and that he would be in serious trouble if he didn’t confess.
A similar and more famous case of a teenager falsely confessing to a crime was made into the Nexflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” A teenage boy was lied to about evidence linking him to the crime and led to him telling a false story about committing a murder.
Suspects Need Rights to Prevent Injustice
Laws protecting suspects from police violence and coerced confessions are just as necessary today as they were in the 1960s. More than a few people falsely confess to crimes. Since 1989, over 60 juvenile offenders have falsely admitted to crimes they did not commit and had their convictions overturned.
Part of the problem is that the techniques police use to get guilty suspects to admit to their crimes are too effective. While these techniques often work to get a guilty person to admit it, they are so psychologically powerful that they can lead to false confessions.
Modern police use the Reid technique, which was created as a humane way to extract an admission but is likely to lead to false confessions if used on adolescents and some adults.
While false confessions are still possible, there are at least a number of laws and practices that try to prevent them. Since the 1960s, suspects have heard that they don’t have to talk to the police – the right to remain silent. They also hear that anything they say or do can be used against them – a warning not to say the wrong thing during an interrogation.