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Why the Miranda Decision Still Matters 51 Years Later

Everyone who has ever watched a crime show on TV has heard and probably memorized the Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent.  If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney . . .”   Reading an accused his rights is now an ingrained part of law enforcement procedure and considered integral to protecting everyone’s Fifth Amendment rights, but it wasn’t always that way. History is loaded with examples of coerced confessions, dating back to the Spanish Inquisition and even earlier to the Roman Empire.  Today, we often take the protections afforded by our Bill of Rights for granted, including our Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and our Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

History of the Miranda Decision

Ernesto Arturo Miranda was born in Mesa, Arizona on March 9, 1941.  Ernesto was a tough kid who first encountered law enforcement while still in grade school.  When Ernesto was small, his mother died and his father soon remarried.  It was not a happy home.  Ernesto was in 8th grade when he was convicted of his first crime.  The following year, he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to a year in reform school.  About a month after his release, in 1956, he was arrested and returned to reform school at the Arizona State Industrial School for Boys.  After his second release, Miranda moved to California.  Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for armed robbery and was accused of some sex offenses.  After living in California, Miranda became a drifter, moving through the southwest and the southeastern states.  He was arrested in Texas for living on the street, arrested again in Nashville for driving a stolen car.  That arrest resulted in him spending a year and a day in federal prison for taking the car across state lines. 

It is mere happenstance that Miranda’s was the case destined to make history and become an integral part of our legal system.  On March 13, 1963, the police were looking for a suspect in connection with the kidnapping and rape of 18-year-old, Lois Ann Jameson.  Ms. Jameson told police she was accosted by a bespectacled “Mexican” man as she was leaving her job at a movie theater.  He forced her into his car, drove into the desert, and raped her.  A week later the girl and her brother-in-law1 spotted what she thought was the assailant’s car and called police.  Phoenix police officers stopped and confronted Miranda.  Ernesto Miranda voluntarily accompanied officers to the police station and participated in a lineup.  The victim was unable to identify Miranda in the lineup, but the police told Miranda he had been positively identified by the victim. After two hours of interrogation, Miranda confessed to the crime.  

His confession, which he later recanted, was very brief, and the facts differed in many respects from the victim’s description of the crime. The form used for the written confession contained a header, stating “. . . this statement has been made voluntarily and of my own free will, with no threats, coercion or promises of immunity and with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make can and will be used against me.”  During the entire interrogation, no one ever informed Miranda that he had a right to consult an attorney or that he had a right to remain silent. 

The court assigned a 73-year-old lawyer, Alvin Moore, to represent Miranda at his trial.  The trial before Judge Yale McFate took place in June,1963.  Moore objected to the admission of the confession, but his objection was overruled by Judge McFate.  Ernesto Miranda was convicted and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.  Moore appealed the conviction to the Arizona Supreme Court, but the Court upheld the conviction. 

Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union became involved along with its Arizona Counsel, Robert J. Corcoran.  Corcoran (who later served as a Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court) asked criminal defense lawyer John J. Flynn and Flynn’s partner, John P. Frank, to represent Miranda2.   Flynn and Frank, who were involved in human rights and constitutional law issues, wrote a 2,500-word petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that Miranda’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated because the police failed to inform him of his rights.

In November,1965, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the Miranda case along with three other similar cases.  The constitutional issues in Miranda v. Arizona arose from an earlier Supreme Court decision, Escobedo v. Illinois where the Court ruled that once the police have settled on a suspect, they cannot refuse to allow the suspect the right to counsel and the right to remain silent.

On June 13, 1966, the United States Supreme Court published its opinion in Miranda v. Arizona.  The Court held:

The prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination.  By custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.  As for the procedural safeguards to be employed, unless other fully effective means are devised to inform accused persons of their right to silence and to assure a continuous opportunity to exercise it, the following measures are required.  Prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.  The defendant may waive effectuation of these rights, provided the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently.  Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US. 436, 444 (1966)

Legendary Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren, authored the opinion.  The 5 to 4 decision was based on the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.  The Court harkened back to the English Star Chamber in the 1600’s when the privilege against self-incrimination first became an issue in the courts.  The Supreme Court used the warning already in use by the FBI as its model for the Miranda warnings.  The idea behind the Miranda decision was to protect the weak, the uneducated, and the innocent from coerced confessions.  The Court had seen a number of cases where vulnerable and sometimes marginally competent individuals confessed with no understanding of their constitutional rights.  Two of the three cases heard with Miranda may have impacted the Court’s decision.  In Westover v. U.S., the defendant was interrogated for 14 hours before the police obtained a confession.  In California v. Stewart, the police held the defendant for 5 days and questioned him 9 times before he confessed.  Those prolonged interrogations likely made the confessions suspect in the Court’s mind.

Whatever happened to Ernesto Miranda?  He was retried on the rape charge, this time without the confession.  He was convicted when his now estranged, common law wife testified that he told her he was guilty of the rape charge.  Miranda was paroled from prison in 1972.  On January 31, 1976, he was killed in a bar fight in Phoenix.  He is buried in the City of Mesa Cemetery.

The Impact of Miranda on Modern Police Work

Miranda came under intense criticism from Congress and police agencies.  Both President Nixon and Ronald Reagan were vocal in their dislike of the decision.  There was fear that the Miranda warnings would undermine the ability of the police to do their jobs.  Despite the objections and attempts to legislate a repeal of Miranda, the decision stands firm today.  Law enforcement has become accustomed to reading a suspect his or her rights.  People know they have a right to a lawyer.  They know that they are not required to answer questions posed by the police.  When they choose to waive those rights, they understand what they are waiving.

Many legal scholars believe the Miranda warnings strike a necessary balance between law enforcement and the general public by reminding everyone that our rule of law is based on inalienable, individual rights that cannot be ignored. 

Similar Protections in Other Countries

Most common law countries like England, Australia, and Canada have warnings similar to the Miranda warnings to protect the rights of the accused.  Because England does not have a written constitution, the rights of the accused have come down through common law and statute.  The British and American legal systems have many similarities.  Many of the principles behind the U.S. Bill of Rights derive largely from British common law and history. 

The chief difference between the British “caution” and Miranda rights in the U.S. is this.  In the U.S. the Fifth Amendment prohibits a jury from drawing any inference of guilt when a person exercises his right to remain silent.  Under British law, the jury may infer guilt from a defendant’s refusal to answer questions.  How much difference does that make over all?  It is difficult to say. 

Resources

Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478  www.supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/378/478/case.html

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 www.supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/384/436/case.html#F4


1Some articles say it was her cousin.

2John J. Flynn and John P. Frank are both important figures in in Phoenix legal history for their skill and devotion to justice.

3In Escobedo, the police refused the suspects request for a lawyer.  Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. at 485

 

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