Richard Nisley

Rights of the Accused–Miranda v. Arizona
History - American Released - Sep 09, 2018
Ernesto Miranda, a laborer in Phoenix, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and rape in March 1963. The overzealous police department had the goods on him, more than enough evidence to put him in prison for a good long time. Only they wanted more. They wanted an air-tight case. They wanted a signed confession. In getting it they deprived Miranda of his constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States. They questioned him for two hours without an attorney present and made him sign a statement that he confessed to the crime under his "own free will, with no threats, coercion, or promise of immunity, and with full knowledge of (his) legal rights, understanding any statement (he made) may be used against (him)." The trial that followed was open and shut, concluded in a single day, with the jury returning a guilty verdict within mere minutes.

If not for a wave of liberal crusaders pressing to reform the nation's criminal justice system, Miranda's story would have ended there. But his conviction, along with three other similar cases, caught the attention of the Supreme Court, which in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), had established the accused person's right to counsel in state cases under the Sixth Amendment. Now the Court sought to weigh the nature of the accused person's rights while in custody and whether they must be explicitly advised of them.

That's the background of "Miranda v. Arizona: Rights of the Accused" by Gail Blasser Riley. It's listed as a young-adult book, but it doesn't read like one. The basic issue is as simple as it is profound–who looks after the rights of the little guy, the dispossessed, the vulnerable, the minority who happens to find himself caught up in the United States criminal justice system? Miranda was shanghaied, so to speak, even if he was guilty of the crime. Luckily for him – and us – the Supreme Court heard his case and reversed the lower court's decision, and the reading of the Miranda Rights have become a part of police interrogation. Miranda was retried in the 1963 rape charge and, without his confession being entered into evidence, was found guilty and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison.

Justice Walter Schaefer of Illinois has advanced “the relation of the United States to the rest of the world” as one argument for national standards of criminal procedure. “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the method it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law. Who speaks for the little guy? The Supreme Court which is in a strategic position to give voice to national ideals.”

For decades, the judiciary had struggled with the problem of how to regulate the inherently coercive environment of police detention. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover formed the Wickersham Commission to study how law enforcement was being applied. The commission found in its 1931 report that the "third degree–that is the use of physical brutality, and other forms of cruelty, to obtain confessions or admissions–is widespread." Five years later, in "Brown v. Mississippi," the Court ruled that confession induced by torture violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In that case, three black men in Mississippi were convicted almost entirely due to confessions obtained after brutal police whippings. "The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand," Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for the Court's unanimous majority.

By the 1960s, it was clear that more work was needed. A 1961 study by the Commission on Civil Rights reported "evidence is found which indicates that some policemen still resort to physical force to obtain confessions," finding claims of the third degree being used to elicit admissions of guilt.

It was in that context that the high court sought to lay down strict guidelines for what was, as Chief Justice Earl Warren put it, the "inherently intimidating . . . police dominated-atmosphere" that too often violated suspect's rights as law-enforcement officers sought to obtain confessions. Underpinned by the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination, Miranda and its associated cases offered the Supreme Court the opportunity to outline in great specificity what officers must say and do when interviewing a suspect if they hope to use the resulting information against the person.

"Unless a proper limitation upon custodial interrogation is achieved–such as these decisions will advance–there can be no assurance that practices of this nature will be eradicated in the foreseeable future," the Chief Justice wrote.

Drafting the script that remains essentially unchanged today, Warren ruled that those in custody must be "clearly informed" of their right to remain silent; that their statements could be used against them in court; and of their right to an attorney appointed them if they could not afford one. Interrogation had to cease if those interviewed decided at any point to invoke their right to silence or an attorney. Most tellingly, Warren added that fulfilling those requirements would be a prerequisite to the admissibility of statements at trial.

The Court had thus rewritten police handbooks nationwide, and for that the 5-4 decision had its critics. Not least among them was Associate Justice Byron White, generally seen as representing the liberal wing of the Court, who argued that the decision was a dramatic expansion of the Fifth Amendment's protections, alleging that the majority's new standards for interrogation would discourage all confessions, while criminals who would otherwise incriminate themselves would be back on the streets. Yet despite some outcry and the subsequent explosion of urban crimes, Miranda's legacy has held strong.

In the 2000 case "Dickerson v. U.S." the federal government argued that the Miranda decision was merely a ruling of judicial procedure rather than a right guaranteed under the Constitution. But the high court disagreed, upholding the now-sacrosanct decision as a statement of constitutional law by a strong 7-2 majority. "Miranda has become imbedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court's majority.

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