Miranda Warning

2012-08-05 14:14:07

The arrest and interrogation of Ernesto Miranda would cause reverberations in the criminal justice system and create defendants’ rights that are still enforced to the present day. Miranda v. Arizona created the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says no one ‘‘shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.’’ The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the only safeguard against overzealous Police Interrogation tactics. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Miranda opinion. Justice Warren became one of the great judicial activists in the history of the Supreme Court.


The doctrine of the right against self-incrimination has its history in English common law. During the reign of Charles I (1625–1649), the right emerged as a response to the repressive measures taken by the government. English trial judges restricted the use of involuntary confessions, but in 1783 it became written law. English judges were keenly aware of physical and psychological coercion and its effect on involuntary confessions. The law presumed that judges could determine whether a confession was voluntary or involuntary. The voluntariness rule became prevalent in American jurisprudence as well. In the nineteenth century, during a major reform period in the English criminal justice system, judges had the right to review Police Interrogation practices. In 1848, by paliamentary act, preliminary interrogation of suspects was subject to judicial review. In contrast, American jurisprudence was far less sophisticated and took nearly a century to subject Police Interrogations to judicial review. The right against self-incrimination would develop even later.

The United States did recognize a right against torture in a 1783 case, Commonwealth v. Dillon. However, the Supreme Court did not review state prosecutions until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment due process clause prevents states from depriving ‘‘. . . any person of life, liberty or property without due process of the law.’’ The Supreme Court limited its review of depriving a person of the due-process rights to federal prosecutions. The Court did not establish a common law rule against torture until it overturned a murder conviction and death sentence in Hopt v. Utah.

The Court continued to have a narrow view of when the Fourteenth Amendment should be applied. In 1895, Justice Melville Fuller wrote in Wilson v. United States that a voluntary statement was not rendered inadmissible by the mere failure to provide the suspect with a lawyer during questioning to advise him that he need not answer questions posed to him and that any statement he made would be used against him. The Supreme Court began one of the most conservative eras in its history with the hallmark decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which created the Jim Crow separate-but-equal doctrine. With few exceptions the Court began a handsoff approach to state and federal prosecutions.

Twentieth Century

The Supreme Court did an about-face in Bram v. United States (1895) and applied the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Justice White wrote the opinion that overturned a murder conviction after finding that the accused’s statements introduced into evidence as a confession of guilt were involuntarily made. The Court relied on the principle that the Fifth Amendment was meant to exclude ‘‘all manifestations of compulsion whether arising from torture or moral causes.’’ However, the Court again retreated from uniformly applying the Fifth Amendment to inadmissible confessions. In 1902, the Court affirmed a murder conviction and rejecting the defendant’s claim in Hardy v. United States that his statements were involuntary. The Court made no reference to the Fifth Amendment. The Court went further in Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78 (1908), and rejected outright the contention that the right against selfincrimination was applicable to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court began a complete turnaround from Bram v. United States.

The Court eventually rejected Bram’s rationale entirely. Starting in Powers v. United States, the Court held that the Fifth Amendment guarantee was not violated by the admission of voluntary statements made at the preliminary hearing, even though the accused was not warned that the statements he made could be used against him. The Court began to retreat against taking any action in federal cases. In a 1923 deportation case, United States ex rel Bilokumsky v. Tod, Tod alleged that absence of counsel at the preliminary hearing and the failure of officers to apprise the defendant of his right to remain silent violated his due-process rights. The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Brandeis found that, absent a rule forbidding interrogation or requiring counsel, ‘‘a mere examination does not render the hearing unfair.’’

While the Court did reverse the murder conviction in Ziang Sung Wan v. United States, it did not apply the federal Constitution. The police held Wan in a hotel room incommunicado for one week under relentless interrogation and used coercive methods such as sleep deprivation to garner a confession eventually admitted into evidence. The Court would remain silent for years on the use of the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause and the right against self-incrimination.

The 1930s saw a judicial revolution take place. The Supreme Court began to address the horrible and brutal legacy of race in the southern criminal justice system. The infamous Scottsboro case became the first of several cases the Supreme Court decided in the defendants’ favor. In the 1932 case, Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), several young black men were charged and convicted of the rape of two white women. The trial court assigned local attorneys for all nine defendants. The trial court found them guilty, sentenced them to die, and set the execution date. The Supreme Court reversed the convictions and found that defendants had the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in death penalty cases. The right to counsel at the interrogation phase would not come until some years later. Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936), was the seminal case that raised the question of Coerced Confessions to a constitutional level. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that law enforcement would not be able to use torture as a coercive tactic to garner confessions.

In McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), the Court held that police were to show ‘‘with reasonable promptness’’ some legal cause for holding persons. The Court would not allow convictions to stand when the police failed to allow defendants a prompt preliminary hearing. The Court extended the McNabb rule in Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 499 (1957). The Supreme Court reversed a rape conviction and death sentence. The Court held that federal law that required Mallory be brought before a magistrate ‘‘without unnecessary delay’’ had been violated. The McNabb–Mallory rule put law enforcement on notice that a statement obtained from a defendant during a period of unnecessary delay in having a probable cause determination should be excluded.

The Court began to eek out procedural safeguards for defendants. The Court guaranteed representation in death penalty cases, would exclude confessions that were physically coerced, and guaranteed defendants the right to be brought to court without delay. It would take Justice Earl Warren to create the modern doctrine of defendants’ rights.

Miranda v. Arizona


Justice Warren began to carve out fundamental rights for defendants and challenge conventional law enforcement procedures. In Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), Gideon was charged with breaking and entering a poolroom with intent to commit—a felony under Florida law. Appearing in court without funds and without a lawyer, Gideon asked the court to appoint him counsel. The court refused and Gideon represented himself. The jury found him guilty and he received a five-year prison sentence. Justice Black succinctly stated, ‘‘The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.’’

The Court began to give a nuanced definition of what it meant to have counsel. A Mexican immigrant and murder suspect continued to request his attorney while being interrogated, but the police refused his request. The Supreme Court held that once a suspect becomes the target of an investigation and is not warned about his constitutional rights, he is entitled to representation under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964), gave suspects the right to counsel during the interrogation phase. The Court began to grant constitutional guarantees at the critical interrogation phase for defendants.

However, Escobedo required several criteria be met in order to conclude that denial of representation had taken place:

The investigation is no longer a general inquiry into an unsolved crime but has begun to focus on a particular suspect, the suspect has been taken into police custody, the police carry out a process of interrogations that lends itself to eliciting incriminating statements, the suspect has requested and been denied an opportunity to consult with his lawyer, and the police have not effectively warned him of his absolute constitutional right to remain silent, the accused has been denied ‘‘the Assistance of Counsel’’ in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution as ‘‘made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.’’

Escobedo left categories of suspects without recourse; if they were not the target of specific investigation, they could not seek the assistance of counsel. The unprotected catergory included witnesses, potential witnesses, and sources of information or investigative leads. Only when the subject became the target of the investigation was he entitled to constitutional protection. The critical investigation and interrogation phase left many suspects without rights.


A bank teller was abducted from a parking lot in downtown Phoenix. She unlocked her driver’s side door and was met with a short, slender Hispanic man wielding a knife. The man drove the car into an alley. He attempted to assault the teller, but she successfully fought back and told him to take the money in her purse. The man took eight dollars from her purse and left the car. Three months later. an eighteen-yearold telephone dispatcher was getting into her car when a short Hispanic male forcefully entered it. He held a small knife to her throat and demanded money. He then began to tear at her clothes and she screamed and scared the man away. A week later, an eighteen-yearold woman getting off the bus in mid Phoenix was accosted by man in a car. He grabbed her and placed her in the car and drove to the desert. She was assaulted and later returned to her neighborhood.

The police received a lead about a young Hispanic male driving a car in the area where the last woman was assaulted. Police went to Ernest Miranda’s home and asked whether he would accompany them to the police station. He agreed. Once he was placed in the interrogation room, the police immediately began to question him about the assault and abduction of the eighteen-year-old woman. Miranda was asked to participate in a lineup. He agreed. Two victims could not conclusively identify him. The police told Miranda that they had identified him. Miranda then wrote a confession regarding assaulting the eighteen-year-old and verbally confessed to the robbery. The police reviewed with Miranda a standard statement form that stated the confession was free from coercion and given with knowledge of his legal rights.

Miranda had separate trials for robbery and assault. The trial courts found him guilty of all charges and sentenced him to prison. Defense counsel raised issues about the confession used in the trial; the major issue was whether Miranda was informed of his constitutional rights. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court accepted the case for review.


Justice Warren held that 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 selfincrimination. Justice Warren’s opinion became the verbatim Miranda warnings that are so well known today:

An individual held for interrogation must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation.

If an individual indicates that he wishes the assistance of counsel before any interrogation occurs, the authorities cannot rationally ignore or deny his request on the basis that the individual does not have or cannot afford a retained attorney.

It is necessary to warn the individual not only that he has the right to consult with an attorney, but also that if he is indigent a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.


Miranda created a firestorm of debate that still rages today. In 1966, Congress attempted to overrule Miranda through legislation (18 U.S.C. } 3501). Congress enacted the statute that was intended to overrule the requirement that officers give Miranda warnings to suspects by once again making voluntariness, rather than the recitation of warnings, the touchstone for the admissibility of confessions. It set forth a nonexclusive list of factors, including whether the suspect was advised of his constitutional rights, that courts could consider in determining voluntariness. Although this statute was enacted in 1968, it was largely ignored by federal prosecutors. Thus, the Miranda warnings requirement remained intact simply by default.

Miranda opponents eagerly awaited a case that would overrule the landmark case and establish the congressional statute as law—it came in 2000. Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428 (2000), became one of the most anticipated cases to be argued before the Supreme Court in several years.

The FBI arrested James Dickerson for bank robbery after an eyewitness gave a license plate number that matched Dickerson’s car. The agents went to Dickerson’s house with guns drawn. They entered his apartment without a warrant and without Dickerson’s consent. The agents took him to an FBI field office and failed to give him his Miranda warnings. Agents continued to talk to Dickerson and informed him that his apartment was being searched. Dickerson gave them a statement. The agents advised him of his rights after the statement was given.

Dickerson’s attorney successfully had the statement suppressed before trial The Fourth Circuit reversed the suppression of the statement using the language from Section 3501. Dickerson appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that Section 3501 could not be enforced because the warnings component of the Miranda decision was a constitutional ruling. The debate rages about whether the Supreme Court would in future consider overturning Miranda. The Dickerson Court chose to yield to the original intent of Justice Warren.

The Future

The globalization of criminal procedures has become evident in the war on terror and in the investigation of the attack on September 11, 2001. In the era of Al Queda and a protracted war, the government has the power to suspend the civil liberties of its citizens by invoking enemy combatant status. Once the status is invoked, the person is placed outside the purview of American law and jurisprudence. An enemy combatant is not allowed to have regular contact with an attorney, has no judicial review, and may be detained indefinitely.

The government has taken two methods with American citizens accused of Al Queda activity. John Anthony Lindh became the first American charged with activities linked to the terrorist organization. The FBI treated him as any American citizen is entitled, including being advised of his Miranda rights and right to counsel. The government charged Lindh with treason and he pled to lesser charges. Counsel on both sides prepared for a trial in which questions of the voluntariness of Lindh’s statement would have come into dispute.

Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi are designated enemy combatants who have not been given the same level of protections as Lindh enjoyed. Padilla and Hamdi continue to fight to be under the purview of American jurisprudence and all the rights that are afforded them as American citizens. The Supreme Court has given the U.S. government leeway to designate Padilla and Hamdi as enemy combatants until the president deems that they are American citizens with rights under the Constitution again.


References and Further Reading

  • Godsey, Mark A., Rethinking the Involuntary Confession Rule: Towards a Workable Test for Compelled Self- Incrimination, California Law Review 93 (March 2005): 465.
  • Stuart, Gary. Miranda: The Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent. 2004.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936)
  • Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
  • Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)
  • 18 U.S.C. } 3501

See also Coerced Confessions/Polilce Interrogations; Due Process