Miranda Turns 50: Justice Begins With A Warning

In 2016, the nation marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the nation’s best-known U.S. Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona. This year’s May 1st Law Day 2016 theme is based on the case and celebrating its anniversary – Miranda: More Than Words. So how has Miranda woven itself into the fabric of our nation’s ideals of liberty, justice, and equality under the law since its decision fifty years ago?

In Miranda, the court held that law enforcement personnel must advise a suspect of his or her rights in order to use statements made during a custodial interrogation in a later criminal proceeding. As a result of this case, police developed the Miranda warning, which lets people in custody being questioned by police know they have constitutional rights to refrain from speaking to police and to consult an attorney.

Public Perception and Confusion

To date, the phrase “You have the right to remain silent,” the start of the Miranda warning, is known by many as it is ingrained into our popular culture. Yet, as the ABA Law Day theme implies, there is much more to Miranda than the words of the warning. The guiding force of Miranda is meant to exist as an important procedural safeguard for fairness and equal justice under the law in our criminal justice system.

Yet, for as well-known as the words of the Miranda warning have become, the confusion behind its use is equally prevalent. While television shows and movies often depict law enforcement reciting the Miranda warning to every suspect while slapping on the handcuffs, many if not most arrests made every day in the United States do not involve or require it. Miranda warnings are required when a suspect is in custody, the police question the person and the person is aware he or she is speaking with the police. Otherwise, any statements made are inadmissible against the defendant.

Two-Prong Approach to Miranda 

In general, the two requirements that trigger the need for such procedural protections — custody and questioning – either does not exist in many arrests or an exception to Miranda applies, such as the public safety exception of addressing immediate threats to public safety.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that Miranda does not bar coercive interrogations per se. Rather, it excludes any information obtained from interrogations of a suspect in custody who was not informed of his or her rights from a criminal trial against the defendant. These procedural safeguards – requiring police to warn suspects of their right to silence, of the fact that their statements would be used against them, of their right to counsel, and of the fact that an attorney would be appointed if they were indigent – were sought to equalize an individual’s rights in such circumstances not only between the suspect and the police, but between uninformed suspects and the knowledgeable ones.

Miranda Demands Justice to All and for All 

If fairness and justice can begin near the time of the arrest, then underlying principles of the Fifth Amendment can, one hopes, follow the suspect up through the criminal justice system; a trickle-up approach. For example, when a suspect unequivocally invokes his right to silence, regardless of how minor or how horrific the crime may be, the police must scrupulously honor that invocation of rights and immediately cease questioning. As such, Miranda does not ban the honed techniques of skilled police interrogators doing quality police work; it demands it.

Nevertheless, our cherished national principles of striving for “justice for all” and our Constitution delivering equal rights continue to face challenges in the justice system today. Racial disparities, disproportionate sentencing, and inadequately funded public defense systems throughout our land are a few of those challenges. The Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against compelled self-incrimination and the Miranda rule designed to enforce it are not barriers to justice in America, but pillars established to ensure those tenets remain strong to protect the weak.

This Law Day, let us reflect on the importance of our constitutional rights, promote public awareness and understanding of those rights afforded to us, and commit ourselves to the work that remains to be done in ensuring that we have a criminal justice system that is fair for all Americans.

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