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  • Jim Schroeder

Where Do Miranda Rights Come From?

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Anyone who watches American crime dramas over the past 40 years knows the Miranda rights.  We’ve heard various police officers state: “You have 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, one will be provided for at no expense to you.  Do you understand these rights?”  As most people know, these statements given by law enforcement officers are known as Miranda rights.  So, who is Miranda anyway?  What did she do?  What do these warnings actually mean and how are they applied?

“Miranda Rights” originated with the case Miranda v. Arizona.  In March 1963, a man named Ernesto Miranda was suspected of raping an 18-year-old woman in Arizona.  He was taken into custody and questioned.  (The police were led to Miranda because he drove a car similar to the one the victim said the perpetrator drove, and Miranda did have a prior voyeurism conviction.  However, the victim did not pick Miranda out of a line up).  During questioning, Miranda wrote a confession.  (He later recanted).  The confession by Miranda also differed somewhat from the crime as described by the victim.  At trial, Miranda’s attorney did object to the confession being used as evidence but was overruled.  The defense did not call any witnesses in his defense, and Miranda was convicted.

The American Civil Liberties Union took up his appeal, asserting that the confession was coerced and false.  The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and the Miranda warnings were born.  He was then retried in October 1966, and, again, was convicted.  He stayed in prison until 1972, when he was released on parole   In January 1976, Ernesto Miranda was fatally stabbed in a bar fight.  Ironically the suspects in his murder were most likely given “Miranda rights.”

When Miranda’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was reviewed along with three other cases involving suspect interrogations while in police custody.  Miranda’s case was listed first – hence the name.  The appeal was based on the belief that the police had violated Miranda’s right against self-incrimination.  The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself . . .”  In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that prior to any interrogation, a subject must be warned that he has a right: (1) to remain silent, (2) to be informed that any statement made may be used as evidence against him, and (3) to the presence of an attorney.

These rights provide a counter against the inherently coercive and, at times, an unfair environment of a police interrogation.  (The victim in the Miranda case was not able to pick Miranda out of a lineup.  However, the police told Miranda that she had identified him.  He then gave his confession).

Miranda rights must be given if police are questioning a suspect in a “custodial interrogation,” meaning there is a formal arrest or restraint that person’s freedom of action.  A police officer asking a witness “what did you see?” does not invoke Miranda warnings.  However, if police have information that makes them believe a specific person is a suspect in a crime and they ask that specific person “what happened here?” that may trigger Miranda warnings.  If that person can leave without answering, then no Miranda warnings need to be given.  But, if the police restrain the suspect’s freedom by not allowing him to leave, or by arresting him while asking “what happened” then courts will most likely find that Miranda rights need to be given.

Frequently people will claim they were arrested, but the police did not read them their Miranda rights.  Miranda rights only apply to statements given by the suspect to the police.  If the police have other, independent evidence that the suspect committed a crime, Miranda rights do not need to be given prior to arrest.  But Miranda rights should be given prior to the questioning of the suspect.  What happens if the police question a suspect that they know is a suspect, without giving Miranda rights?  Then the accused can ask that those statements be excluded and not used or referred to at trial.  If this happens, can the suspect still be convicted?  Yes, if there is other independent evidence.  Failure of the police to give proper Miranda warnings is not a get out jail free card.

In 2010, in the case of Florida v. Powell, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Miranda warnings do not require specific language to be used, as long as the warnings reasonably convey the three warnings, then the warnings will be held to comply with Miranda.

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