Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miranda v Arizona that police officers are required to read a suspect his or her rights. These include the constitutional right against self-incrimination in the Fifth Amendment, and elements of the Sixth (the right to counsel) and the 14th (due process and equal protection). The ruling was heralded as an important effort to mitigate coercive police questioning.
Ernesto Miranda had been convicted of robbery, kidnapping, and rape—crimes for which he eventually served time in prison based on a subsequent conviction. He was compelled by police to sign a confession after two hours of interrogation in which he was never informed of his legal right to an attorney.
In reporting the majority's decision on June 13, 1966, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
"It is not admissible to do a great right by doing a little wrong. . . . It is not sufficient to do justice by obtaining a proper result by irregular or improper means.”
The ruling was controversial then, and decades later, questions are still raised about whether Miranda has had any impact on police violations of constitutional rights, especially for minority communities.
Miranda was stabbed to death in a bar in Phoenix in January 1976, just six months shy of the tenth anniversary of the landmark ruling that bears his name.
Ironically, Miranda’s conviction took place in the same courthouse in Maricopa County, Arizona, where four decades later Sheriff Joe Arpaio would defend his traffic stops and other forms of selective enforcement specifically targeting immigrants and undocumented workers.
Arpaio's conduct was later sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Justice as a form of racial profiling. Court cases on these issues are ongoing, but Arpaio remains in office, calling himself "America's Toughest Sheriff."
Although millions of people are familiar with Miranda warnings from seeing them delivered on TV, in fact many people are arrested without ever being read their rights. That’s because Miranda sets two conditions for when warnings must be given, both of which must be simultaneously present.
First, the police must be asking questions intended to elicit an incriminating response; second, the person being questioned must also actually be in custody. Police routinely question people who are not in custody, and anything these people say can and will be used against them in court. Also, statements made by persons in custody in the absence of questioning by police are fair game.
Miranda was an important decision in its recognition that suspects in custody have rights. But, as countless defendants have had occasion to learn, those rights are often limited.
Norman Stockwell is incoming publisher of The Progressive.