Miranda v. Arizona at 40
T HE MAN WHOSE NAME is synonymous with the
rights of the accused was no angel.
1966 ruling expanded the definition of
“involuntary” self-incrimination and effectively
formalized the due process requirements of the
At 22, Ernesto Miranda had been in and out of Constitution’s 5th and 6th amendments through the
reform schools, jails and prisons since grade school. mandatory “procedural safeguard” which almost
Dishonorably discharged from the Army after overnight come to be known as a “Miranda
spending nearly half his tour in the stockade, warning.” A person being taken into custody has
Miranda wandered the South, along the way the right to avoid incriminating themselves and the
spending time in jail in Texas on vagrancy charges right to an attorney even if they can’t afford one.
and a year in federal prison after taking a stolen car The warning typically begins: “You have the right to
across state lines. Miranda then managed to stay remain silent…”
out of jail for a couple of years, and a series of
menial jobs led to the loading dock of a Phoenix, Movies and television quickly seized on the
Arizona produce company. “Mirandizing” of suspects as a useful dramatic
element of police procedurals (“Read him his
In March of 1963, witnesses told police rights!…) and now, four decades later, it’s doubtful
investigating the apparent rape and kidnapping of that any other constitutional requirement is as well
a young Phoenix woman that a produce truck had known to the public, certainly not in its particulars,
been used when Miranda, his common-law wife as the Miranda warning. While most Americans are,
and her two children moved to a new home. When at very best, only passably conversant in their
police located the new home with the help of the constitutional rights, who among us, including
Post Office, they found a car registered to the wife those drunken, bare-chested hooligans who get
which the victim had linked to the crime. And they rounded up each week on Cops, can’t recite a
found Ernesto Miranda, just home after a 12-hour reasonable facsimile of the Miranda warnings from
shift on the loading dock, asleep in the bedroom. memory?
After an inconclusive police line-up which Miranda Thirty-four years after Miranda, the high court itself
was told had gone against him, police officers apparently noted Hollywood’s astounding
brought the victim to an interrogation room influence. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in the
doorway to hear Miranda’s voice. One of the Dickerson v. United States decision which turned
arresting officers asked Miranda if this was the girl away Congressional efforts to loosen Miranda,
he had raped. Believing that she had already noted that the recitation has become “embedded
picked him in the line-up, Miranda reportedly in routine police practice to the point where the
answered: “That’s the girl.” warnings have become part of our national
Within a couple of hours, Miranda signed a culture.”
confession which would become the sole item The high court found in Miranda v. Arizona that all
entered into evidence by the prosecution at his custodial interrogation is “inherently” coercive—
trial. that psychological intimidation is unavoidably
Miranda’s lawyer tried to get the signed confession introduced by the procedures and environment of
barred as evidence, saying Miranda had been arrest and interrogation and can be as powerful a
unconstitutionally denied legal counsel, but the weapon as physical abuse during a police
judge refused and Miranda’s words were read to questioning. The presentation of Miranda rights
the jury. It was enough; He was convicted and early in the custody procedure is intended to
sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison on each ensure that the accused understands his or her
charge, to be served concurrently. constitutional rights before the process goes too far.
But the police unquestionably had failed to inform Miranda was in part housekeeping for earlier court
Miranda of his rights to keep quiet and to have rulings. Gideon v Wainright had confirmed the right
what his lawyers would later call “the guiding hand to legal counsel in felony cases and Escobedo v.
of counsel” after his arrest. Three years later, the Illinois, two years before Miranda, extended that
Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona right to include police interrogations if an
overturned Miranda’s conviction. The landmark investigation has begun to focus on a particular
The Constitution and Criminal Procedure: Miranda v. Arizona at 40 by Matt Coates • page 1 of 2
suspect. The high court took on Miranda, which warnings in movies and on TV shows has been to
consolidated a number of related cases, in part to make their recitation much more than a useful
help settle questions raised by those earlier dramatic device. The Miranda warnings in the
decisions, primarily Escobedo. Miranda, much more police procedurals show our Constitution at work.
than the others, considered constitutional rights in
the context of day-to-day police procedure. Crime shows, from Dragnet to Law and Order, bring
important Constitutional constructs to life in
Not surprisingly, many police officers, prosecutors understandable and often compelling contexts; We
and legislators say Miranda’s requirements make see the 5th and 6th amendments, via Miranda, at
convictions harder to get and have put guilty work in tidy cases in which the “perp” is guilty as
people back on the streets. They complain that charged, in cases in which the accused is “not
excluding from evidence any information gathered guilty” (and may even be innocent), and in
from a suspect who has not been mirandized—the complex, grayer scenarios in which the warnings are
usual penalty—is too harsh when an “honest perverted for some nefarious gain. Sometimes, the
mistake” has been made. Defense lawyers and civil warnings are given through clenched teeth as if the
libertarians counter that convictions for serious cop can’t stand the idea that the bad guy even has
crimes should not be easy to come by and that if rights.
Miranda has forced law enforcement and
prosecutors to work harder and play by the rules, But however Miranda rights are read, with dramatic
that’s as it should be. flourish or bored indifference, they are read, and
that’s what’s important. Perhaps more than any
Some of the efforts to dilute Miranda, such as the other assault on our liberties, violations of rights
federal law overturned by Dickerson, have sought to related to criminal procedure can mean dire
revive the old “totality-of-the-circumstances” consequences for personal freedom; The public’s
standard which was used before Miranda v. Arizona familiarity, if not embrace, of Miranda makes such
in which the trial court determines if a suspect’s violations less likely.
confession was freely given even if police had failed
to read Miranda warnings. But the Supreme Court And what of Ernesto Miranda who started all this?
said “experience suggests” that such a totality test He was not freed by Miranda v. Arizona because he
is “more difficult than Miranda for (police) officers still had time to serve on a related robbery charge
to conform to, and for courts to apply consistently.” which was not affected by the Supreme Court
This gets to the heart of the matter. decision. As Arizona made plans to prosecute him
again for rape and kidnapping, Miranda made the
Miranda warnings are effective because they are a mistake of crossing his common-law wife in a
clear and unambiguous. Although the Supreme custody dispute. She turned on him, testifying that
Court did not mandate specific wording for the Miranda had admitted to her that he raped the
warnings, in practice they have become highly young woman. One year to the day after the high
standardized and vary little among jurisdictions. court had heard arguments in Miranda v. Arizona,
The basic text leaves little in doubt for the accused he was found guilty a second time.
and scant wiggle room for the police and
prosecution: A person in custody has rights to Miranda was paroled in 1972, and for a time made
remain silent, to avoid self incrimination and to pocket money selling autographed “Miranda
legal counsel. warning cards” for $1.50 each. But in January of
1976, after several run-ins with the law and another
If it isn’t hard to understand the warnings and isn’t year in prison for a parole violation, Ernesto
burdensome to give them, what can we conclude Miranda, just 36 years old, was stabbed to death in
about efforts to undermine Miranda except that a fight during a poker game at a shabby bar in the
they seek to give the government unwarranted Phoenix’s rundown Deuce neighborhood.
insurance against screwing up? The subjective
judgments required under a “totality-of-the- The man charged in his murder (and later
circumstances” standard would likely favor police acquitted) was read his rights by a Phoenix police
and prosecutors, giving them the benefit of the officer.
doubt when their conduct is questioned. A tangle of And Miranda reportedly had one of his
conflicting lower court rulings would soon arrive at autographed cards in his pocket when he died.
the Supreme Court, as happened after Escobedo.
In any event, dumping Miranda now might be a
harder sell than many politicians realize. The
cumulative effect of four decades of the ubiquitous
The Constitution and Criminal Procedure: Miranda v. Arizona at 40 by Matt Coates • page 2 of 2