One of the most frequent and recognizable lines in any television police drama is the line that begins: “You have the right to remain silent.” This is not just a Hollywood trope; it comes from real life. The entire speech, in which criminal suspects are informed of their Constitutional rights, is known as the “Miranda warning.”
The speech has become such a television cliché that many of us never stop to think about what it actually means. In today’s post, we’ll discuss where the name comes from, and why the Miranda warning is important.
Like many other criminal justice protocols, this one was based on a criminal case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1963, an Arizona man named Ernesto Miranda was arrested for kidnapping and rape. Police interrogated him for hours, eventually getting him to confess and to sign a written confession.
In arguing his case at trial, Miranda’s attorney claimed that Miranda had not understood his rights – including the right to have an attorney present during police questioning. Nonetheless, the man was convicted, and his conviction was later upheld by the state Supreme Court.
In 1966, three years after his arrest, Miranda’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest Court reversed his conviction on the grounds that he had not been informed of his Constitutional rights. As such, his confession could not be considered voluntary. The Court’s 5-4 decision ultimately led to the standard Miranda warning that police officers must give to arrested suspects today.
The Supreme Court decision did not permanently solve Mr. Miranda’s problems. He was retried and convicted even without his original confession.
Miranda warnings have certainly been helpful as a mechanism for preventing law enforcement overreach, but there are still many problems. It is not always made clear when suspects are under arrest (rather than simply being detained), and suspects who are young or cognitively impaired may not understand their rights even if they are given the Miranda warning.
Among the most important parts of the Miranda warning is the reminder that anyone arrested for a crime has the right to have a criminal defense attorney by their side before answering any questions. If you ever find yourself under arrest, please make sure you exercise that right.