You have the right to remain silent

In 1963, a young laborer with a substantial criminal history was arrested for kidnapping and raping a 17-year-old girl. After two hours of interrogation, he confessed. But when his case went to trial, his lawyer argued that because the police didn’t tell the perpetrator that he had the right to refuse to talk and the right to a lawyer, his confession should be thrown out. It was, the lawyer argued, not truly voluntary. Eventually the US Supreme Court agreed, holding that custodial interrogation is inherently coercive. In order to counteract some of that coercion, before suspects can be interrogated while in custody, they must be informed of their rights. That young laborer’s name? Ernesto Miranda.

We all know what the Miranda rights are. You can probably recite them. Here’s the language that sets them out in the decision itself:

The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he/she has the right to remain silent, and that anything the person says will be used against that person in court; the person must be clearly informed that he/she has the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning, and that, if he/she is indigent, an attorney will be provided at no cost to represent him/her.

Despite our familiarity with this ruling, many people hold misconceptions about it. So here are some important things to know:

  • The rights don’t need to be recited exactly in the words the Court used. There is no specific required wording as long as the main points are clearly and adequately covered.
  • Research has questioned the extent to which children, English learners, and some of the disabled understand the meaning of the warnings.
  • Even if a suspect has been warned, a confession may be inadmissible if extra coercion was applied.
  • A suspect can waive his Miranda rights and choose to speak to police without an attorney present. An astonishing percentage of suspects—over 80%—do so.
  • Police only need to give the warning prior to custodial interrogation. This means no warning is necessary if the suspect isn’t in custody—if, for example, police have briefly detained her on the street or at home to ask a few questions. And it doesn’t apply if police have no intention of interrogating the suspect. I know someone who was detained overnight in the Alameda County drunk tank for being obnoxiously drunk at a baseball game. When they let him out the next morning, he loudly complained that they had never Mirandized him. I pointed out that the last thing they wanted to do was interrogate him—they wanted him to shut up, in fact—so they didn’t have to read him his rights.
  • SCOTUS has carved out a number of exceptions to the Miranda requirement, the most important being the public safety doctrine.

As for Miranda himself, he was retried and reconvicted even without his confession. Four years after he was paroled, he was killed in a bar fight. I assume that upon arrest, the assailant was read his Miranda rights.