Today in 1966: The Supreme Court creates the Miranda warning

June 13, 2014

Today in Legal History“You have the right to remain silent.”

This phrase is one of the most iconic in any television program or movie involving criminal law to any significant degree.  But most viewers of the program are probably unaware of both the phrase’s origins and its purpose.

Anyone who took a law school criminal procedure course (or just had to study the topic for a bar exam like yours truly) knows that the phrase is only the first part of a longer monologue spoken by police to individuals at the time that they are arrested, and serves to inform arrestees of their rights.

And they would also know that this warning – commonly known as the “Miranda warning” – originated with a Supreme Court ruling, Miranda v. Arizona, after which it was named.

That ruling celebrates its 48th birthday today, having been originally decided on June 13, 1966.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward: Ernesto Miranda was arrested for the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old woman.  After two hours of interrogation, the police obtained written confession signed by Miranda.  At the top of the confession was a typed paragraph stating that “the confession was made voluntarily, without threats or promises of immunity and ‘with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me.’”

The confession was introduced at trial over Miranda’s objection, and despite the fact that the officers admitted at trial that they had not informed him of his right to have an attorney present during the interrogation, Miranda was convicted on both charges.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed the convictions, finding the failure of the police interrogators to inform Miranda of his right to an attorney to be irrelevant because he never requested one during the interrogation.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that without explicit warnings from the police of Miranda’s right to an attorney, along with his right not to be compelled to incriminate himself, the confession was inadmissible.

Along with Miranda’s case, the Court also heard three other similar cases in which the respective defendant was not informed of one of his constitutional rights.  In its ruling in these four cases (consolidated into the Miranda ruling), the Court gave a “fourfold warning” that must be given to a person in custody before he is questioned:

that he has a right to remain silent, that anything he says may be used against him, that he has a right to have present an attorney during the questioning, and that if indigent he has a right to a lawyer without charge.

This passage from the Miranda opinion has been paraphrased into the widely known “Miranda warning” used by law enforcement nationwide.

At the time of the ruling, Miranda was met with widespread disdain by law enforcement.  It created an additional requirement for police to conduct interrogations of suspects in custody, and furthermore reversed convictions of numerous defendants across the country.

Today, however, these warnings are viewed somewhat differently: the reading of the Miranda warning provides law enforcement with an unequivocal method of sanitizing an interrogation, and so long as the legal requirements of Miranda and its progeny are followed, any confessions gleaned from a defendant are safely admissible at trial.

Miranda has even survived an attempt by Congress to overturn it: in 1968, Congress passed a law that required federal judges to admit any statements made by defendants so long as they were made voluntarily – with no consideration given to whether Miranda warnings were ever read.  The Supreme Court struck down this law in 2000’s Dickerson v. U.S.

In Dickerson’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist noted that “Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.”

Indeed, if the countless crime-related TV programs and movies are of any indication, Justice Rehnquist was absolutely correct.  Miranda, at less than fifty years old, is one of the most iconic cases in U.S. history.