Miranda and the Fifth

On this day in 1966, the Supreme Court issues its landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona, holding in-custody statements of a defendant are admissible only after warnings regarding the right to counsel. The Court specifically ruled that both inculpatory and exculpatory statements made in response to interrogation by the declarant in custody will be admissible at trial only if the prosecution shows the defendant was informed of the right to consult with an attorney before and during questioning, of the right against self-incrimination said questioning, and that the defendant not only understood these rights, but voluntarily waived them.

On March 13, 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested in his house and brought to the police station where he was questioned by police officers in connection with a kidnapping and rape. After two hours of interrogation, the police obtained a written confession from Miranda.

The written confession was admitted into evidence at trial over the objection of defense counsel, notwithstanding the fact that the police officers admitted that they had not advised Miranda of his right to have an attorney present during the interrogation. The jury ultimately found Miranda guilty; on appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed and held that Miranda’s constitutional rights were not violated because he did not specifically request counsel.

During the 1960’s, a movement which provided defendants with legal aid emerged from the collective efforts of various bar associations. In the civil realm, it led to the creation of the Legal Services Corporation under the Great Society program of President Lyndon Johnson, and Escobedo v. Illinois, a case which closely foreshadowed Miranda, provided for the presence of counsel during police interrogation.

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority providing that the protection against self-incrimination is available in all settings, and specifically calling for warnings to defendants undergoing interrogation. In Miranda and cases consolidated under its name, the Court further held that the interrogation techniques used did not technically fall into the category of coercive, but failed to ensure that the defendant’s decision to speak with the police was entirely the product of his own free will.

Justice Tom C. Clark wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the majority’s opinion created an unnecessarily strict interpretation of the Fifth Amendment that curtails the ability of the police to effectively execute their duties. In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice John M. Harlan wrote that the judicial precedent and legislative history surrounding the Fifth Amendment does not support the view that the Fifth Amendment prohibits all pressure on the suspect. He also argued that there was no legal precedent to support the requirement to specifically inform suspects of their rights. Justices Potter Stewart and Byron R. White joined in the dissent.

On his re-trial on evidence not including his confession, Miranda was convicted in 1967 and sentenced to serve 20 to 30 years. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, and the Supreme Court denied further review. Miranda was paroled in 1972, and after his release, returned to his old neighborhood and made a modest living autographing police officers’ “Miranda cards” which contained the text of the warning.

Miranda was stabbed to death during an argument in a bar on January 31, 1976. Ironically, a suspect was arrested, but he, unlike Miranda, exercised his right to remain silent; with no other evidence against him, he was released.

Those wry cynics in and around law enforcement often refer to eventual outcomes such as Miranda’s as “conviction by a higher court.” And here, our lesson on the wisdom of shutting one’s yapper endeth.