Miranda: A Real Fiction

Alphabetically-ordered seating in school generally meant that I had a seat in the back of the room, but that left me free to do as I pleased for the most part; however, the elevated platform used by Mrs. Carol Thomas negated that advantage, and I actually paid attention in her seventh grade civics class. Among the many of her lessons that I remember was the lesson on the Bill of Rights: the first ten amendments to the Constitution enumerating such things as the right to counsel, the right not to be a witness against oneself, the right to due process, and the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures as well as cruel and unusual punishment. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. They aren’t exactly a secret.

In 1966 the nine wise souls of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) voted in a 5-4 decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), to require peace officers to read what is now commonly known as the Miranda warning to suspects in custody prior to questioning. However, as Messrs Harlan and White pointed out in their dissenting opinions there is no requirement in the text of the Constitution that requires such a warning. The requirement to do so is purely a creation of the court. I repeat, there is nothing in the Constitution that places any requirement whatsoever on the government or its agents to formally advise people of all said rights. The Constitution itself does that, and it did so 175 years prior to the Court’s creation of a real fiction.

Please note that I am by no means arguing against these rights as such a presumption would be false. I’m just pointing out that all the Court did in Miranda was create a procedural step that has spawned four decades worth of court cases. Earlier this year, SCOTUS handed down its decision in Berghuis v. Thompkins (docket 08-1470). In this decision, the Court held that individuals must explicitly invoke their right to silence. Headlines and talking heads have proclaimed this decision as “turning back the clock” on legal protections and as “trimming Miranda rights”. Well, this is just a nit that I have to pick. Miranda didn’t and doesn’t grant or guarantee rights. It’s the United States Constitution that enumerates our rights. Again, the Court with Miranda created nothing but a procedural hoop through which to jump. Even without said warning, the rights are still there and can still be invoked by the individual. If the SCOTUS wiped out Miranda completely, those rights would still exist.

Notes:

-Noted civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall argued the case on behalf of the government, thus he argued against the Miranda procedure. Marhsall, who later become a SCOTUS Justice, was the lawyer who successfully argued in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), against the “separate but equal” policy that allowed racial segregation in schools.

-The defendant in this case, Ernesto Miranda, was convicted of burglary while in high school. He served time on numerous offenses and was later dishonorably discharged from the Army after repeated AWOL and peeping tom offenses for which he also served time in a military stockade. In the case in question, he was arrested, confessed to, was positively identified by the victim, and was later convicted of the rape and robbery of an 18 year old girl (he couldn’t be positively linked to other victims abducted and raped from the same area). A warning very similar to the wording created by Miranda was printed on each page on which he wrote his confession. After SCOTUS overturned his conviction, he was re-tried without his confession being entered into evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to over 20 years in prison but was paroled a few short years later after which he made money by selling autographed Miranda cards. He was killed in a bar fight in 1976.

Miranda is often misunderstood. A suspect must be both in custody and being asked investigatory questions before it is required. Other than that, a peace officer may ask any question they so choose to anyone not in custody. Also, a peace officer with probable cause may make an arrest and never ask any questions of the suspect thus never crossing the threshold of Miranda being applicable.

3 comments

  1. Wow! I had no idea of the story behind our Miranda rights. It’s quite a story of constant troubles of an individual plagued with a sense of entitlement, in my opinion. I also didn’t that this was not something that was not mentioned, directly or indirectly in the Constitution. Excellent read!

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