Written by Brooks Holland
He is an associate professor of law at Gonzaga University School of Law.
Thanks to countless movies and television shows, these words evoke one of the most well-known Supreme Court decisions of all time, Miranda v. Arizona (1966). This decision famously requires the police to give specific warnings to a suspect as a condition to custodial interrogation: that the suspect has the right to remain silent; that statements by the suspect may be used in court; that the suspect may consult with a lawyer during interrogation; and that a lawyer will be provided if the suspect cannot afford one.
A controversial decision, “Miranda [nevertheless] has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.”1 Even a popular movie like 21 Jump Street could drop a Miranda joke about Officer Jenko’s inability to recite Miranda warnings correctly, and count on the fact that most people would know the proper language for those warnings, more or less.2 “You have the right to remain an attorney.” Everybody knew Jenko dropped the ball with that line.
The nation’s cultural understanding of Miranda, however, has not always matched Miranda’s reality. For beyond the familiar Miranda warnings themselves, the Miranda rule includes other important features and limitations to address the constitutional concerns that motivated the Miranda decision. Miranda’s 50th anniversary in 2016 presents a valuable opportunity to reflect on the history, meaning, and impact of this decision.
The Miranda rule is a component of the broader law of interrogation. Police interrogation raises challenging legal questions because of the important but competing interests these practices implicate. On the one hand, confessions by guilty suspects aid the police in solving crimes and promoting public safety. On the other hand, the desire to secure a confession can invite abusive police practices, and these practices can undermine valued individual rights, and even prompt innocent persons to confess.
The Miranda decision seeks to balance these interests through the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment, however, contains not a word about warning suspects of constitutional rights. Rather, the part of the Fifth Amendment animating the Miranda rule is the right against self-incrimination: “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The Supreme Court’s path to finding Miranda rights in this provision covered almost 200 years following the nation’s founding.
For about the first 100 years of the nation, the Supreme Court did not decide major constitutional cases involving police interrogations. Several reasons may account for this judicial inaction. For example, the police initially were not organized as large, well-trained institutions resembling the contemporary police departments where custodial interrogation practices developed. Furthermore, local courts already had some authority in the common law for judging whether coerced confessions should be excluded from trial.
Some reasons for this initial judicial inaction, however, were important to the development of the Miranda rule. One of these reasons is federalism. The vast majority of criminal cases are heard in state courts, not in federal court. In the United States’ federal system of government, federal courts cannot dictate evidentiary rules for the states without constitutional authority to require state courts to follow those federal standards. And, until the Fourteenth Amendment came to be applied to the states, the Supreme Court understood the Bill of Rights, including the Fifth Amendment, to apply only to the federal government. As a result, the Supreme Court initially lacked authority to direct interrogation rules for the states.
Another important reason is that prior to the 20th century, the Supreme Court had not fully developed the “exclusionary rule”—the rule that prohibits the prosecution from admitting evidence at a criminal trial if that evidence was obtained in violation of the Constitution. Whether the exclusionary rule bars admission of a suspect’s confession at trial is the whole point of Miranda. The Supreme Court refined the exclusionary rule largely in early 20th-century cases involving the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, such as Weeks v. United States (1914) and Mapp v. Ohio (1961).
In 1897, however, the Supreme Court did invoke the Constitution to limit police interrogations. Because the murder case of Bram v. United States was a federal prosecution, the Bill of Rights indisputably applied. In deciding whether the government properly offered Bram’s confession as evidence at trial, the Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination controlled:
“[I]n criminal trials … wherever a question arises whether a confession is incompetent because not voluntary, the issue is controlled by that portion of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States commanding that no person “shall be compelled in any case to be a witness against himself.”
The legal question under the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court emphasized, was whether the police compelled the confession:
In order to be admissible, [a confession] must be free and voluntary: that is, must not be extracted by any sort of threats or violence, nor obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, nor by the exertion of any improper influence.
Limited to federal prosecutions, however, Bram did not govern the police interrogations happening in local police stations all around the country. These interrogation practices included “third degree” methods ranging from psychological coercion to outright torture. The most abusive of these interrogation practices often were applied to African American suspects in the South, especially suspects accused of a crime against a white person.
In Brown v. Mississippi (1936), the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution does apply to the most abusive of these interrogations conducted by state officers. In Brown, the police interrogated three African American men who were suspected of murdering a white person. The interrogations included brutal whippings, and even efforts to hang one suspect, to force these suspects to confess. State courts upheld the resulting convictions.
The Supreme Court, on appeal, still accepted that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination did not apply to interrogations conducted by state officers. But, the Court observed, “[t]he rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand.” The Court based this conclusion on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the post–Civil War amendment directed expressly to the states. Relying on this provision, the Court concluded that “the use of confessions … obtained [by torture] as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.”
In the decades following Brown v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court decided several cases finding that coercive interrogation practices by state officers violated due process by producing an involuntary confession—a legal standard comparable to the Fifth Amendment standard adopted in Bram. By 1964, the Court effectively merged the two standards by deciding that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination does apply to the states. Interrogation law in the mid-20th century thus consistently inquired whether a confession was voluntary, meaning the product of free will, instead of police coercion.
This voluntariness test, however, required courts to examine the “totality of circumstances.” The admissibility of every confession, thus, was judged on its own unique facts. Consequently, when lawyers argued whether a confession was voluntary, the process could be inefficient, and the results unpredictable and even inconsistent.
During this same time period, the police developed new interrogation methods in response to Supreme Court decisions. These methods relied less on rack-and-screw tactics and more on isolation of a suspect from family and counsel, psychological pressure, and deception. These methods were very successful in obtaining confessions that appeared, in the totality of circumstances, to be “voluntary,” thus raising new questions about the role of the judiciary in regulating police interrogations. The Supreme Court confronted these questions in Miranda.
The Miranda Decision
The Miranda case was comprised of four different cases presenting the same legal question to the Supreme Court: whether custodial interrogation should be judged on a case-by-case basis for evidence of police coercion, or instead should require special procedural protections to ensure that confessions are voluntary. The facts of Ernesto Miranda’s case illustrated the point of this legal question.
In 1963, an eighteen-year-old woman was kidnapped and raped near Phoenix, Arizona. Ten days later, the police arrested Miranda and took him to the local police station. Miranda was twenty-three years old, poor, and educated only to the ninth grade. Miranda also suffered from an “emotional illness.” At the station, the victim identified Miranda, from a lineup, as her attacker, and the police removed Miranda to another room where two officers interrogated him in isolation.
During this interrogation, the police did not employ physical force, threats, or promises. But neither did the police advise Miranda of his right to have a lawyer present during the interrogation. Miranda at first denied his guilt. But after two hours, the police emerged with a signed written confession. This confession included a declaration that the confession “was made voluntarily, without threats or promises of immunity and ‘with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statements I make may be used against me.’” Miranda’s confession was admitted at his trial, and he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
In reviewing Miranda’s conviction, the Supreme Court acknowledged that “we might not find [Miranda’s] statements to have been involuntary in traditional terms.” Yet, the Court emphasized, “[t]he fact remains that in none of these cases did the officers undertake to afford appropriate safeguards at the outset of interrogation to insure that the statements were truly the product of free choice.” The four Miranda warnings, the Court decided, supply these appropriate safeguards.
The Supreme Court thus pivoted in Miranda from a rule that merely prohibits coercive police conduct to a rule that requires the police to prevent coercion by giving a suspect specific legal warnings. This shift reveals the significance of Miranda. No longer were confessions admissible solely because the police abstained from bad behavior in securing the confession. Now, the police must affirmatively warn suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer. If the police do not give these warnings, a court will presume, solely from the lack of Miranda warnings, that the statement was involuntary and exclude it from trial.
For a suspect subject to interrogation who has been properly warned, Miranda places a fork in the road. If a suspect voluntarily waives Miranda rights and talks, the confession almost certainly will be judged admissible. If, by contrast, a suspect invokes the right to remain silent, the police must “scrupulously honor” this right. Further, if a suspect requests a lawyer, no interrogation may occur without a lawyer present.
The Supreme Court based the need for this protective rule in the nature of modern police interrogation. Modern interrogation practices, the Court observed, are “psychologically rather than physically oriented.” The goal is to isolate a suspect to deprive the suspect of every “psychological advantage” and “to subjugate the individual to the will of the examiner.” Indeed, “the very fact of custodial interrogation exacts a heavy toll on individual liberty and trades on the weakness of individuals,” and “is at odds with one of our nation’s most cherished principles—that the individual cannot be compelled to incriminate himself.” Only Miranda’s required warnings, the Court held, can dispel this inherent compulsion.
Importantly, in line with these concerns, Miranda applies only during custodial interrogation: “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” Accordingly, Miranda does not apply to suspects who volunteer statements—Miranda does not require the police to put a sock in the mouth of a talkative suspect. Nor must the police warn suspects who are not in police custody. Of course, in none of these cases may the police actually coerce the confession. But, courts will not presume that these confessions were involuntary solely because Miranda warnings were not given.
The Impact of Miranda
The impact that law enforcement feared from Miranda is that suspects who confess voluntarily would get their confessions excluded from trial on the “technicality” that Miranda warnings were not given. Or, after being warned, suspects would invoke their rights instead of confessing. This loss of confession evidence would hamper criminal investigations and even set dangerous criminals free.
Pro-Miranda advocates, by contrast, anticipated a world where the police and in-custody suspects would operate on a level playing field. Far fewer individuals would confess during the crucible of custodial interrogation. And, confessions that were obtained more likely would be voluntary.
The post-Miranda reality, however, appears to have been more modest between these extremes. For example, one study by an anti-Miranda scholar claimed that Miranda affected the outcome of less than 8 percent of cases. Other studies argue an even more minimal impact by Miranda on the ability of the police to secure admissible confessions.
At least three explanations may account for Miranda’s modest impact. One explanation is that the police have adapted their interrogation practices to Miranda’s requirements. Miranda still permits the police to interrogate strategically, and the police are well trained on how to interrogate past Miranda. Any experienced prosecutor or defense lawyer will confirm that plenty of suspects in police custody still talk with the police.
Second, Miranda supplies a simple and efficient template for prosecutors to demonstrate to courts that a confession was voluntary. Jurors also may look to Miranda warnings as evidence that an interrogation was fair and the confession reliable. The police thus know that if they follow Miranda and secure a confession, the confession more likely will be stamped with the law’s version of a gold star. Indeed, the FBI for years prior to Miranda, had given similar warnings as best law enforcement practice.
A third explanation for Miranda’s modest impact arises from how the Supreme Court itself has limited Miranda in the years following the decision. Acknowledging that Miranda’s exclusion of some confessions from trial can be a difficult pill to swallow, the Court has peppered the rule with exceptions.
Here are some examples:
- Exclusionary rule: The exclusionary rule sometimes can exclude a chain of evidence following a constitutional violation. For example, assume the police beat a murder suspect during interrogation, producing a truly involuntary confession that included the location of the murder weapon. Not only would this confession be excluded from trial as involuntary, but so would the weapon, as a product of the coercive interrogation. This rule is often called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that this “poisonous fruit” rule does not apply to Miranda violations: if all the suspect can show is a violation of Miranda, only the confession is excluded from trial, not other evidence discovered as a result of the improper confession. In this way, the Court does treat Miranda violations as more of a constitutional “technicality” than other constitutional violations.
- Public safety: In New York v. Quarles (1984), the Supreme Court decided that Miranda does not apply during public safety emergencies. The police in Quarles interrogated the suspect without Miranda warnings when trying to find a firearm he discarded in a crowded grocery store. The Court held that the suspect’s admission to the gun’s location was admissible at his trial because public safety trumped Miranda. More recently, the government has invoked this public safety exception to interrogate apprehended terrorists without Miranda warnings. The police cannot actually coerce a statement from a suspect because of a public safety emergency, but the police need not give Miranda warnings.
The Supreme Court has also made the Miranda warning catechism more accommodating to police interrogation strategies. For example, the Court has held that the police may begin interrogating a suspect before obtaining a waiver of Miranda rights, so long as a Miranda waiver precedes the confession. The police thus can prime a suspect to confess before the suspect decides whether to waive Miranda rights. The Court further has ruled that a suspect does not invoke the right to remain silent by remaining silent for two hours during police interrogation. Instead, a suspect must affirmatively “invoke” the right to remain silent, which means the suspect must talk. And, a suspect can waive his or her Miranda rights simply by confessing, whether they intend to do so or not, because a confession is seen as proof that the suspect does not want to remain silent. These rulings all draw a roadmap for police interrogation around the Miranda rule.
Despite these limitations, Miranda nevertheless remains a significant constitutional decision in the world of criminal justice. The Miranda rule surely does check the power of the police to coerce their way to a confession. Further, the rule reinforces a fundamental principle: all individuals retain critical rights when in police custody, and the police must work within these rights when interrogating a suspect. This principle in turn reinforces our nation’s commitment to the rule of law, even when the state is pursuing interests as important as criminal justice and public safety.
At 50, Miranda may have a few wrinkles and have lost some of its energy.
Yet, despite concerted efforts over the years to reverse Miranda, the Supreme Court has remained committed to Miranda’s underlying principle: when the police take a suspect into custody for interrogation, that environment is inherently coercive, and the police must dispel that coercion by ensuring the suspect understands and waives his or her right against self-incrimination. As Deputy Chief Hardy scolded Officer Jenko in 21 Jump Street: “What possible reason is there for not doing the only thing you have to do when arresting someone?” In this light, perhaps Miranda over 50 years has proven itself a win–win for everyone, simply because we all know it as a familiar legal rule that balances public safety with individual rights.