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Miranda Rights and the Miranda Warning

A Short History

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The Miranda warning—the short statement (beginning with "You have the right to remain silent...") that police read to suspects following an arrest—hasn't always been part of U.S. law enforcement culture. It originated with a controversial landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1966 and, like most major rulings, has roots in the Constitution itself.

1789

James Madison proposes the Fifth Amendment, which states in part that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

1966

In his majority opinion in Miranda v. Arizona, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren writes:
Over the years the Federal Bureau of Investigation has compiled an exemplary record of effective law enforcement while advising any suspect or arrested person, at the outset of an interview, that he is not required to make a statement, that any statement may be used against him in court, that the individual may obtain the services of an attorney of his own choice and, more recently, that he has a right to free counsel if he is unable to pay ...

The practice of the FBI can readily be emulated by state and local enforcement agencies. The argument that the FBI deals with different crimes than are dealt with by state authorities does not mitigate the significance of the FBI experience.
The case overturned the conviction of a man whose confession was obtained without his informed consent, and changed the way state and local law enforcement agencies handled interrogations.

1984

In New York v. Quarles, Chief Justice William Rehnquist rules that law enforcement officials need not read suspects their Miranda rights in a situation where immediate public safety is at stake:
Whatever the motivation of individual officers in such a situation, we do not believe that the doctrinal underpinnings of Miranda require that it be applied in all its rigor to a situation in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety. The Miranda decision was based in large part on this Court's view that the warnings which it required police to give to suspects in custody would reduce the likelihood that the suspects would fall victim to constitutionally impermissible practices of police interrogation in the presumptively coercive environment of the station house. The dissenters warned that the requirement of Miranda warnings would have the effect of decreasing the number of suspects who respond to police questioning. The Miranda majority, however, apparently felt that whatever the cost to society in terms of fewer convictions of guilty suspects, that cost would simply have to be borne in the interest of enlarged protection for the Fifth Amendment privilege ...

We conclude that the need for answers to questions in a situation posing a threat to the public safety outweighs the need for the prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination ... In recognizing a narrow exception to the Miranda rule in this case, we acknowledge that to some degree we lessen the desirable clarity of that rule ... The exception will not be difficult for police officers to apply because in each case it will be circumscribed by the exigency which justifies it. We think police officers can and will distinguish almost instinctively between questions necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public and questions designed solely to elicit testimonial evidence from a suspect.
In his blistering dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall points out that the issue is not whether officers can interrogate suspects at all—it's whether they can use the testimony gained from interrogation in court. And in that respect, a confession obtained without informed consent violates the Fifth Amendment's self-incrimination clause. He writes in part:
Whether society would be better off if the police warned suspects of their rights before beginning an interrogation or whether the advantages of giving such warnings would outweigh their costs did not inform the Miranda decision. On the contrary, the Miranda Court was concerned with the proscriptions of the Fifth Amendment, and, in particular, whether the Self-Incrimination Clause permits the government to prosecute individuals based on statements made in the course of custodial interrogations ...

Without a 'public-safety' exception, there would be occasions when a defendant incriminated himself by revealing a threat to the public, and the State was unable to prosecute because the defendant retracted his statement after consulting with counsel and the police cannot find independent proof of guilt. Such occasion would not, however, be common. The prosecution does not always lose the use of incriminating information revealed in these situations. After consulting with counsel, a suspect may well volunteer to repeat his statement in hopes of gaining a favorable plea bargain or more lenient sentence. The majority thus overstates its case when it suggests that a police officer must necessarily choose between public safety and admissibility.
The case weakens the Miranda precedent, but does not overturn it.

1986

In Colorado v. Connelly, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a confession obtained from a mentally ill suspect is still admissible in Court, even if he was in no condition to correctly interpret it at the time. Justice William Brennan argues in his dissent that in some respects, this defeats the entire purpose of Miranda:
Today's decision restricts the application of the term 'involuntary' to those confessions obtained by police coercion. Confessions by mentally ill individuals or by persons coerced by parties other than police officers are now considered 'voluntary.' The Court's failure to recognize all forms of involuntariness or coercion as antithetical to due process reflects a refusal to acknowledge free will as a value of constitutional consequence. But due process derives much of its meaning from a conception of fundamental fairness that emphasizes the right to make vital choices voluntarily ... This right requires vigilant protection if we are to safeguard the values of private conscience and human dignity ...

Minimum standards of due process should require that the trial court find substantial indicia of reliability, on the basis of evidence extrinsic to the confession itself, before admitting the confession of a mentally ill person into evidence. I would require the trial court to make such a finding on remand. To hold otherwise allows the State to imprison and possibly to execute a mentally ill defendant based solely upon an inherently unreliable confession.
Like the Quarles ruling before it, Connelly weakens Miranda without overturning it entirely.

2000

In Dickerson v. United States, the Supreme Court finally reviews the language of the 1968 Omnibus crime bill—and overturns it, upholding the Miranda precedent. In his majority ruling, Chief Justice Rehnquist—the figure most responsible for weakening Miranda—also takes some credit, perhaps justifiably, for preserving it:
[O]ur subsequent cases have reduced the impact of the Miranda rule on legitimate law enforcement while reaffirming the decision's core ruling that unwarned statements may not be used as evidnece in the prosecution's case in chief.
In light of Rehnquist's ruling, the Miranda precedent seems likely to stand for many years to come.

1968

Congress passes the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which includes an anti-Miranda passage:
In any criminal prosecution brought by the United States or by the District of Columbia, a confession, as defined in subsection (e) hereof, shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given. Before such confession is received in evidence, the trial judge shall, out of the presence of the jury, determine any issue as to voluntariness. If the trial judge determines that the confession was voluntarily made it shall be admitted in evidence and the trial judge shall permit the jury to hear relevant evidence on the issue of voluntariness and shall instruct the jury to give such weight to the confession as the jury feels it deserves under all the circumstances.
The Supreme Court will not evaluate the constitutionality of this language for 32 years—as local law enforcement agencies responded primarily to the Miranda decision itself, and not to the language of the Omnibus crime bill.
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