Why Miranda?

If you grew up with a television in the house, you know what Miranda means. You know that suspected criminals have rights, and police need to read them these rights before questioning them, and they call these the Miranda rights. But who or what was Miranda? Sounds like something you should already know, doesn’t it?

The Miranda Warning is given by police in the United States to advise criminal suspects in custody of their Miranda Rights, i.e. that they have the right to have a lawyer present when being questioned and the right to remain silent and not provide information that could be used against them as evidence in a criminal trial. The Miranda Rights by themselves do not give us anything we don’t already have: the Fifth Amendment already protects individuals from self-incrimination, while the Sixth Amendment already guarantees an individual’s right to legal representation. The Miranda Warning simply ensures that individuals are aware of these rights, therefore having the option either to remain silent or explicitly waive these constitutional rights. It also helps the police, by guaranteeing that anything a Mirandized suspect says will be admissible in criminal proceedings.

But who or what was Miranda? In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department for the rape and kidnapping of an 18-year old woman. Miranda confessed and was found guilty of both counts in a criminal trial, despite his lawyer’s objection that he was never advised of his constitutional rights to speak with a lawyer and to not incriminate himself. His conviction was appealed on that basis and went before the Arizona Supreme Court in 1965, however that court upheld the original guilty decision. The case was further appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1966, resulting in the landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision that held that interrogation will only be admissible in court if the prosecution can show that the defendant was informed of his/her constitutional rights to remain silent and consult with an attorney before answering questions. Miranda’s conviction was set aside and, from that day forward, police across the country began giving what became known as the Miranda Warning.

There is no precise wording that must be used, and every jurisdiction is entitled to its own version, however any warning must at least advise the suspect that:

  • they have the right to remain silent;
  • anything the suspect does say can and may be used against them in a court of law;
  • they have the right to have an attorney present before and during the questioning; and
  • they have the right, if they cannot afford the services of an attorney, to have one appointed, at public expense and without cost to them, to represent them before and during the questioning.

Ernesto Miranda was retried after the Supreme Court decision and again found guilty. The prosecution did not bring his tainted confession into evidence but instead relied on new evidence and witness testimony. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the US Supreme Court denied review. He was sentenced to 20-30 years but was paroled in 1972. In 1976 he was fatally stabbed in a bar fight in Phoenix.

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