When officers brought him to a Phoenix, Arizona, police station on March 13, 1963, 22-year-old Ernesto Miranda insisted he had nothing to do with the crime.
An 18-year-old girl had been kidnapped a week earlier and taken to the Arizona desert, where she was raped. Though the victim had provided descriptions that seemed to match Miranda and the car he drove, she was unable to definitively identify him in a lineup. With no lawyer present, the police interrogated Miranda for roughly two hours. After they falsely told him that the victim had in fact identified him, Miranda confessed.
Whether that confession was legal, however, became the subject of a lawsuit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court's ruling, in Miranda v. Arizona (1966), established some of the most important rights for criminal suspects in the United States, including that police must inform them of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney (see "The Miranda Warnings," facing page).
"The Miranda ruling is the most important criminal procedural case in the history of criminal process," says Gary Stuart, the author of Miranda: The Story of America's Right to Remain Silent. "It protects millions and millions of people."
Locked in a Room, No Food
Prior to Miranda, which was actually four related cases bundled together, most people understood the Fifth Amendment to mean that someone testifying in court has a right to refuse to answer questions from the prosecution or defense (often referred to as "taking the Fifth"). But the language of the Fifth Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, didn't make clear whether people could also refuse to talk when they're in police custody, and officers often took advantage of that confusion.
"[Police] would bring defendants into a locked room, not give them food, " says Shima Baradaran Baughman, a law professor at the University of Utah. "They didn't know they had a lawyer, and then they would confess to a crime" that they may or may not have committed. Such practices were widespread in the South, particularly with poor, uneducated minorities who often didn't understand their rights.
Defense lawyers would later contest such confessions, and judges would be left to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to admit them into evidence during a trial. With the Miranda ruling--a tightly split S-to-4 decision--the Court said for the first time that not only do suspects in police custody have the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and the right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment, but also that police had to inform suspects of those rights.
"What the Court said," says Baradaran Baughman, "was, 'Look, we're going to make a rule ... that says that anybody arrested is read the exact same language so everybody knows that you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, so that people don't speak in those situations' " if they don't want to. The Court also said that if police fail to "Mirandize" a suspect, any statement or confession that a suspect makes can't be used as evidence in court.
The majority of the Justices agreed that reading the Miranda warnings to suspects would create some degree of balance during police interrogations, which are inherently intimidating encounters.
From the start, however, the ruling had its critics. Many police officers and prosecutors thought that requiring police to read Miranda warnings would "handcuff" law enforcement, severely limiting their ability to solve crimes. In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that "the decision of the Court represents poor constitutional law and entails harmful consequences for the country at large."
'Do You Understand These Rights?'
Fifty years after the landmark ruling, the Miranda warnings are such a standard part of police practice that it's rare to find instances in which police fail to read them to suspects. The warnings have also become such a cliche of TV and movie crime dramas that nearly every American is aware of the right to remain silent. And yet, experts say, roughly 80 percent of suspects waive their Miranda rights, often talking themselves into prison.
"In practice, Miranda doesn't kill a lot of cases," says Jack Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. "Because if you're dealing with a really sophisticated individual, they already know about the Fifth Amendment with or without Miranda.... But unsophisticated people don't understand that, and they still don't understand it after the Miranda warnings."
Today, at the heart of most contested confessions is the question of whether the person who waived his Miranda rights really understood them in the first place.
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, thinks we need a better system to ensure that suspects actually know what the Miranda warnings mean, especially "vulnerable suspects," like juveniles (see "J.D.B. v. North Carolina," facing page). He proposes a "dialogue approach" in which police would not only have to read the Miranda warnings to suspects but also have suspects restate the rights in their own words and confirm that they understand the principles behind them and what's at stake in waiving them.
As for Ernesto Miranda, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and his case was retried. This time, his confession could not be entered into evidence, but once again, a jury found him guilty. The clincher was testimony from Miranda's ex-girlfriend, who told the jury that he'd confessed to her. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison and was released on parole in 1972.
By then, Miranda's name had achieved notoriety. He profited from it slightly by selling autographed Miranda cards-which police use to read the warnings--for about $2 a piece. But his days were numbered. In January 1976, during a poker game at...