Handcuffing the Cops: Miranda's Harmful Effects on Law Enforcement

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 218
Saturday, August 01, 1998
by Paul G. Cassell


In 1963, Ernesto Miranda, 23, who had dropped out of school in the ninth grade and had a prior arrest record, was picked up by Phoenix police as a suspect in the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old girl. After two hours of questioning, Miranda confessed orally to the crime. He then wrote out and signed a brief statement admitting and describing the rape. It contained a typed paragraph stating that his confession was made voluntarily without threats or promises of immunity and that he had full knowledge of his rights and understood that the statement could be used against him. At Miranda's trial, the confession was admitted despite his lawyer's objections, and Miranda was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"The Supreme Court specified four warnings that police must deliver to criminal suspects about to be questioned."

Miranda's appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1966, in its landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona, the Court established procedural requirements that law enforcement officials must follow before questioning suspects in custody, and overturned Miranda's conviction because police had not followed the new rules. The Court's 5-4 ruling specified four warnings that police must deliver to criminal suspects about to be questioned. Unless the warnings were read, nothing an arrested suspect might say afterwards during questioning, even in the anguish of conscience, could be used against him in court.

Miranda was retried and again convicted. The confession could not be used, but a former girlfriend testified that he had told her about the kidnapping and rape. After Miranda was paroled in 1972, he was in and out of prison before he was stabbed fatally in a bar at the age of 34. Ironically, a suspect in the stabbing was unsuccessfully questioned and was released, and no one was ever charged in the death.

The changes wrought by Miranda can be best understood by comparing the new rules to those in place before the decision. Before June 13, 1966, police questioning of suspects in custody was covered by the "voluntariness" doctrine. Under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, courts admitted a defendant's confession into evidence if it was voluntary, but they excluded any involuntary confession. In making the voluntariness determination, courts considered a host of factors. For example, if police officers or prosecution investigators used physical force or the threat of force, courts deemed the resulting confession involuntary. Courts also considered such factors as length of interrogation and types of questions asked in making the voluntariness determination.1

Miranda v. Arizona2 radically changed these rules, adding a stringent warning-and-waiver requirement. Under this approach, a confession police obtained from a suspect in custody would not be admissible in court unless that suspect had been read his or her rights. The rights specified are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a police show on television:

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before you answer any questions.

"After a suspect declines to waive his Miranda rights, the police cannot even suggest that the suspect reconsider."

While the Miranda "warnings" are the most famous part of the decision, perhaps even more important are additional requirements that the Court imposed. After reading a suspect his rights, an officer must ask whether the suspect agrees to "waive" those rights. If the suspect refuses to waive - that is, declines to give his permission to be questioned - the police must stop questioning. At any time during an interrogation, a suspect can halt the process by retracting his waiver or asking for a lawyer. From that point on, the police cannot even suggest that the suspect reconsider.

At the time Miranda was handed down, dissenting Justice John M. Harlan clearly warned that the decision would "entail harmful consequences for the country at large. How serious those consequences may prove to be only time can tell."3 Other critics of the decision predicted that it would "handcuff the cops." This question of Miranda's practical effect has far more than academic significance. Since 1966, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Miranda is a realistic preventive measure -"a carefully crafted balance designed to fully protect both the defendants' and society's interests."4 If the costs of Miranda are greater than is generally acknowledged, the Court would presumably need to rethink the current doctrine. What, then, are the costs?

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