Miranda warnings refer to the rights that an accused person must be advised of before his or her interrogation by law enforcement. The Miranda warnings have historically been the subject of ethical debate as well as misconception by the American public.
Miranda warnings are derived from the U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Ernesto Miranda was a Phoenix resident who had dropped out of school before finishing the ninth grade and was known to have some mental instability. He was arrested in 1963 for kidnapping and rape after being identified by the victim. Miranda was interrogated by the Phoenix Police Department, verbally confessed to the crime, and signed a statement detailing his confession. The written statement included wording that asserted that the signer of the statement, Miranda, made the statement voluntarily and was not coerced to make the statement or made any promises regarding the statement.
At the trial, Miranda’s court-appointed attorney argued that his written confession could not be considered voluntary because he was unaware before confessing to law enforcement that he had the right to request an attorney or that any statements he made could be used against him in court. Miranda was found guilty based on his confession and sentenced to prison for 20 to 30 years. The case was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court on the basis that Miranda’s confession should have been inadmissible. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The Miranda case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Miranda’s conviction was overturned by a 5–4 vote. Justices who wrote for the majority felt that based on the Fifth and Sixth Amendments suspects should be advised that they could have an attorney before questioning and that they could choose whether or not to speak to police knowing that their statements could be used against them in court. Justices who wrote for the minority felt that there was not a constitutional basis for the ruling and that the ruling could potentially prevent criminals from serving justice for their crimes solely because of a legal technicality.
The overturning of Miranda v. Arizona by the U.S. Supreme Court meant that law enforcement officials would have to advise every suspect of a crime that was to be interrogated of the abovementioned rights before questioning if they were to use the suspect’s statements in court. While there is not a specific requirement for how police officers phrase the warnings, a suspect is usually “Mirandized” by having read to them a statement closely resembling the following:
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can 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 appointed for you free of charge.
The suspect is then asked whether or not they understand their rights, and they respond verbally and/or in written format.
Using the Miranda Warnings
It is important to understand the requirements of how Miranda warnings should be used. A common misconception surrounding the use of Miranda warnings in the United States is that every person who is arrested must be read their Miranda warnings. This is not the case. Miranda warnings are only required before interrogation, and even then the use of the Miranda warnings is to allow the suspect’s statements to be legally used in court. The reading of the Miranda warnings is not required for someone to be arrested. Furthermore, there are exceptions to the required use of the Miranda warnings before interrogation of a suspect. The first exception is commonly referred to as “excited utterance.” If a suspect provides information regarding a crime to law enforcement without being questioned, the suspect’s statements are admissible in court even if the suspect had not been read his or her Miranda warnings. Law enforcement officers are not expected to prevent subjects from speaking of crimes in their presence; this is not under the law officer’s control. The second exception regards public safety; Miranda warnings are not required to be read to suspects before questioning if there is a public safety issue and time is of the essence. In other words, in emergency situations when someone may be in danger, protecting others takes precedence over the immediate reading of the Miranda warnings. There are also exceptions made for undercover work and for common questioning that is not at the level of interrogation.
Since the Miranda decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, there has been substantial debate over whether or not requiring Miranda warnings is ethical. Proponents of Miranda warnings contend that the warnings are necessary because so many people are unaware of their rights and because so much is potentially at stake when a person is charged with a crime. These supporters feel that being sure a suspect understands his or her rights coincides with the idea within the U.S. criminal justice system that individuals are “innocent until proven guilty.”
For supporters, Miranda warnings help ensure that defendants are protected from unreasonable government coercion or abuse. Opponents of the Miranda warnings feel that the requirement undermines the authority of the police, and they fear that the required statements will lead those who might have otherwise been cooperative with police to instead request a lawyer and remain silent, preventing police from being as effective as possible. Another fear of opponents is that requiring the warnings before statements can be used in court may lead to criminals avoiding their just sentence after committing crimes. Opponents are concerned that suspects may be acquitted because of a legal technicality, rather than having a verdict based on actual guilt or innocence. Fortunately, studies of the effects of Miranda warnings indicate that a very small percentage of cases is overturned based solely on the fact that the warnings were not given when they should have been.
- Drogin, Eric Y., et al. “Investigating the Effects of Repeated Miranda Warnings: Do They Perform a Curative Function on Common Miranda Misconceptions?” Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 31/4 (2013).
- O’Connor, Martin L. “The U.S. Supreme Court Revisits Miranda in a Trilogy of Cases and Clarifies Some of Its Principles but Does Not Weaken Miranda’s Core Values.” Criminal Justice Studies, v.25/3 (2012).
- Roesch, Robert. “Examining the Role of Interrogative Suggestibility in Miranda Rights Comprehension in Adolescents.” Law and Human Behavior, v.35 (2011).
- Stuart, Gary L. Miranda: The Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.
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