The Story Behind the Miranda Warning

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“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?” 

We have all heard these words on TV and at the movies, but where did they come from and how do they help to protect our rights? In the 1960s it was common for suspects to undergo what was referred to as the “third degree”. Police would use tactics, usually legal, to intimidate suspects into confessing to crimes whether they were guilty or not. Lies, tricks, rouses, and misinformation were often used. 

Two criminal cases changed this. In the 1964 case Escobedo v. Illinois, it was determined that suspects have the right to counsel being present during police questioning or to consult with an attorney before being questioned if the police intend to use the answers against the suspect at a trial, or if the person being questioned is being detained and questioned against their will. In 1966, Miranda v. Arizona determined that suspects must be informed of their specific legal rights when they are placed under arrest. 

The Miranda case is the one that gave the Miranda Warning its name. Ernesto Miranda was accused of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Under interrogation, Miranda admitted to his crimes and was convicted based on his confession. The defense claimed police used intimidating interrogation methods to get this confession and the conviction was overturned. Interestingly, Miranda was guilty of the crimes and was convicted on retrial when additional evidence was presented. This is important because the Miranda Warning that would be adopted after this case was not meant to help the guilty escape justice, but to ensure fair treatment to all suspects. 

The actual wording of the warning can vary from state to state, but the intent is the same – to inform suspects of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. These rights apply to suspects under arrest or who are in police custody under suspicion of committing a crime. Police can ask any questions they wish at any time, but if they want to use the answer as evidence at trial, the Miranda Warning must be read. 

All citizens of the United States enjoy certain rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution. It is important that we are aware of what the Constitution provides us and the Miranda Warning has been one of the most effective ways yet of making sure we do. The next time you hear those words on TV, remember that they represent the Constitution in action.