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Miranda v. Arizona and the Fifth Amendment

“The cases before us raise questions which go to the roots of our concepts of American criminal jurisprudence: the restraints society must observe consistent with the Federal Constitution in prosecuting individuals for crime."

This solemn introduction, penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, framed the landmark opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona, one of the most famous judicial decisions in United States history.

Often referenced simply as the Miranda case, the 1966 Supreme Court case introduced the Miranda warning into the American consciousness and found that in criminal cases "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 self-incrimination."

This article includes an overview of the Miranda case and its application to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

Miranda Rights at a Glance

The so-called "Miranda warning," which has entered pop culture through countless movies and TV crime dramas, basically warns people in police custody, prior to an interrogation, of certain rights protected under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Before questioning a suspect in custody, law enforcement officers must advise them of the following:

  1. You have the right to remain silent.
  2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
  3. You have the right to an attorney (and have that attorney present during questioning).
  4. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
  5. You have the right to exercise these rights and end questioning at any time.

The officer delivering the warning should check to make sure that the arrestee understands each warning. The sanction for failing to provide a proper Miranda warning prior to a custodial interrogation could ruin a prosecution. Custodial questioning without a Miranda warning is subject to an irrebuttable presumption that statements given by a suspect in response to questions were involuntary statements under the law. As the Fifth Amendment protects individuals from being "compelled in a criminal case to be a witness against" themselves, a court will usually suppress a defendant's statements from such an interrogation and prevent them from being used at trial. This is referred to as the right against self-incrimination.

In cases throughout American legal history where these rights have not been observed, United States courts have overturned the criminal convictions of many defendants -- even those on death row.

The Case of Ernesto Miranda

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Miranda v. Arizona.

In 1963, Arizona-born Ernesto Miranda already had a long history of run-ins with the law, including multiple juvenile convictions, several arrests, and a short stint in federal prison. That year, he was investigated by police in connection with the robbery, kidnapping, and rape of an 18-year-old woman near Phoenix.

The victim provided a description that matched Miranda, and another witness identified his truck. Miranda was taken into custody, where he agreed to participate in a lineup of suspects. The victim picked him out of the lineup, and then police began to question him about the rape case and another, unrelated crime. He was not provided with any warnings about his right to counsel or advised of his right to remain silent. After two hours of interrogation, he admitted to the crimes and provided a short, handwritten confession. A typed statement atop the confession read, “this confession was made with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me."

At trial, the confession was admitted into evidence despite objection from Miranda's attorney. Similarly, police officers testified about Miranda's incriminating oral statements. He was convicted and sentenced to 20-30 years of imprisonment. His conviction was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, who affirmed the trial court's conviction.

On appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Miranda's attorneys argued that he had not been afforded his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. They also argued that his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination had been violated by the police.

The Sixth Amendment protects the right of anyone accused of a crime to have the assistance of an attorney. The Fifth Amendment prevents the government from forcing people to testify against or otherwise incriminate themselves.

The Supreme Court recognized that, during his detainment, Miranda's right to an attorney was not respected or safeguarded. An attorney was not present during the interrogation, and Miranda was not advised of his right to one.

At the same time, the Supreme Court recognized that Miranda's right not to self-incriminate was also not observed. Despite the typed waiver on his written confession, the Supreme Court ruled that his rights were not effectively protected in the interrogation.

Because Miranda's confession was a primary piece of evidence in the trial court, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision by the Supreme Court of Arizona, effectively overturning his conviction by finding the confession inadmissible.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harlan claimed that the right not to self-incriminate applied only in courts, and not in police stations.

The landmark case overturning Miranda's conviction changed criminal procedure forever by emphasizing the paramount importance of constitutional protections for the accused. For Miranda himself, however, very little changed. He was retried and convicted in 1967, on the basis of other evidence, and again sentenced to 20-30 years in prison for the rape and kidnapping.

Supreme Court Cases Decided Alongside Miranda

The Miranda rights could have just as easily been named "the Stewart rights" or "the Vignera rights," or even "the Westover rights," after the three other cases that were adjudicated by the Supreme Court in the same decision as Miranda. These cases illustrate that the problems addressed by the court were not limited to Arizona, but existed across the United States in the 1960's.

  • The Supreme Court of California had ruled in favor of suppressing a confession in California v. Stewart. Stewart had been convicted of robbery and murder in the trial court on the basis of a confession that police obtained after nine interrogations occurred over the course of five days. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the California decision, recognizing that the defendant should have been advised of his right to remain silent (his fifth amendment privilege) and his right to have counsel present during questioning.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld a conviction in Westover v. United States. In the early stages of their overnight interrogation of Westover, local police in Kansas City had not informed the defendant of his rights. They later turned over the interrogation to agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who questioned Westover about out-of-state robberies. Signed confessions from the interrogation were used to support Westover's conviction in federal court. Even though an FBI agent testified that the defendant was warned about his right to counsel and his right against self-incrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit because Westover had already been interrogated for fourteen hours by that time.
  • In Vignera v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to a ruling from the New York Court of Appeals that effectively determined that a defendant had no constitutional right to be advised of right to counsel or his privilege against self-incrimination. In this case, the defendant had been convicted of first-degree robbery on the basis of a confession obtained after he was questioned by police in three different precincts without counsel present. The Supreme Court reversed the New York decision, finding that the defendant's statements were inadmissible because he had received no warnings or other safeguards of his rights.

Miranda v. Arizona, the Fifth Amendment, and the Dickerson Case

Despite the seemingly entrenched position that the Miranda warning holds in the legal system and in popular culture, Dickerson v. United States, a case heard by the United States Supreme Court during the October 1999 term, threatened to unseat Miranda's 30-year reign.

In Dickerson, the defendant Dickerson confessed to being the driver of a getaway car in a series of bank robberies. However, the District Court, applying Miranda, suppressed the defendant's confession because it found that Dickerson made the statement "in police custody, in response to police interrogation, and without the necessary Miranda warnings."

On appeal, one question before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether 18 U.S.C.A. § 3501, a post-Miranda statute enacted by Congress as part of a larger bill in 1968, was constitutional. This statute states, in part, that "[i]n any criminal prosecution brought by the United States . . . a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given." If this statute is constitutional, it would render the Miranda requirements for admissibility of those statements void.

The Fourth Circuit made the following findings:

  1. Congress has the power to overrule judicially created rules of evidence and procedures that are not required by the Constitution. Thus, whether Congress has the authority to enact the law depends on whether the rule set forth in Miranda is required by the Constitution.
  2. At no point did the Court in Miranda refer to the warnings as constitutional rights. Indeed, the Court acknowledged that the Constitution did not require the warnings, referred to the warnings as "procedural safeguards," and invited Congress and the states "to develop their own safeguards for [protecting] the privilege."
  3. Since deciding Miranda, the Court has consistently referred to the Miranda warnings as "prophylactic," and "not themselves rights protected by the Constitution."

Based on these findings, the Fourth Circuit held that "the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed by § 3501, rather than the judicially created rule of Miranda." However, that decision was itself appealed, and the fight over Miranda warnings returned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 26, 2000, the Supreme Court overturned the Fourth Circuit and reaffirmed the Miranda decision. In Dickerson v. U.S., the Supreme Court held that Miranda, "being a constitutional decision of th[e] Court, may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress..." The Court also declined to overrule Miranda itself and reiterated "that Miranda and its progeny in this Court govern the admissibility of statements" made after an arrest.

Miranda v. Arizona and the Fifth Amendment: Related Resources

The following resources contain more information about Miranda rights and various related constitutional issues:

Use Your Miranda Rights: Contact a Defense Attorney

While you have probably heard the Miranda warnings over and over again in television shows, their significance is often misunderstood. The protections they provide to suspects under interrogation are strongly rooted in the criminal justice system, but a failure to receive a Miranda warning does not invalidate an arrest or provide any particular immunity from prosecution. If you were arrested and questioned without a Miranda warning, your attorney could argue for suppression of the evidence obtained from that questioning.

Regardless of whether the police read you these rights, you can still choose to exercise any and all of them. Once you do, police must generally stop questioning you. To exercise your rights, simply say, "I want a lawyer," or "I do not wish to answer questions." Be clear and direct, because otherwise it is possible that your statements might be interpreted as a waiver of rights. Under such circumstances, the police could continue or resume their questioning.

If your Miranda rights have been violated, it is wise to seek help from an attorney right away. Exercise your rights and learn more about other protections in the criminal justice system by contacting a criminal defense attorney near you today.

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