Typical police and legal dramas on television show officers slapping handcuffs on a suspected criminal’s wrists as they recite the Miranda rights. Or in another scenario, a criminal defense attorney gets charges dropped completely because their client wasn’t Mirandized.
Those scenes might make for interesting entertainment but are not rooted in real life. Miranda rights, what they mean and don’t mean, are often misunderstood in New York and around the country.
The Case of Ernesto Miranda
In 1963, Ernesto Miranda, 24, was accused of kidnapping, raping, and robbery an 18-year-old woman in Phoenix, AZ. After two hours of interrogation without a lawyer, Miranda confessed to the crimes. He then provided a written confession, which was the sole evidence used when he was tried and convicted.
Miranda’s lawyer appealed the conviction to the Arizona Supreme Court, questioning whether his client had voluntarily made the confession and if he was afforded his constitutional rights. That court upheld the original conviction, but the case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda Ruling
His new attorney wrote in the brief to the nation’s high court that the “day is here to recognize the full meaning of the Sixth Amendment.” The Sixth Amendment guarantees certain rights to criminal defendants, including the right to an attorney. Another important right comes from the Fifth Amendment, which protects defendants from becoming a witness against themselves.
Miranda’s attorneys argued that he was not fully aware of his legal rights and that his confession was made under duress.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the Arizona court’s conviction in 1966. The confession could not be used in a criminal trial.
Three similar confession cases were included in the decision:
- Vignera v. New York
- Westover v. United States
- California v. Stewart
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, also provided police with a procedure to clearly make defendants aware of their rights.
The exact wording of the Miranda Warning can vary but must basically state the following:
“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? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
Miranda Eventually Convicted
A myth believed by many Americans is that Miranda was not punished for the Arizona crime. That’s not true. He was retried in 1967. The 1963 confession could not be admitted as evidence; however, Miranda’s former girlfriend testified that he has told her about the crimes while he was in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. He was paroled in 1975 and stabbed to death during a fight in a Phoenix bar one month after his release.
Application of Miranda Rights
This history and background of the Miranda warning is only one area misunderstood by some. How and when the rights are applied is also surrounded by several myths.
Myth 1: Miranda rights must be read during an arrest.
There is no requirement that an officer must read a person their rights during the arrest. Law enforcement must inform someone of their rights before interrogation and only if the person is in custody (meaning they do not have the right to walk out).
Myth 2: Police must Mirandize someone before asking them any questions.
As stated in Myth 1, Miranda rights are only required before asking questions only if the person is in custody. Someone who voluntarily comes into the police station to answer questions does not need to be Mirandized. If police knock on someone’s door and that person volunteers information, Miranda is not required. Verbal evidence provided during this time can be used against the person. If the person is subsequently arrested, the police must inform them of their rights before continuing to ask questions..
Myth 3: Charges will be dropped against someone interrogated without being Mirandized.
If someone in custody is improperly questioned, a skilled criminal defense attorney will typically be able to suppress any verbal evidence given. That does not mean charges will be dropped or that the case will be dismissed. The case must be proven with lawfully obtained evidence and testimony outside of what was said.
Myth 4: You only need an attorney if you have been arrested.
It is a good idea to have experienced defense attorney at your side whenever police question you. Do not wait until you are arrested and Mirandized to call a lawyer. Legal counsel helps you understand your rights, including guiding you against saying something that can later be used against you.