Miranda Rights: A Brief History

Watch any television crime drama and you will hear the words, “You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say can and will be used against you….” This statement, read to every suspect before they are interrogated, ensures that our fundamental rights to have an attorney and not incriminate ourselves are protected. Prior to 1966, suspects in criminal cases were not read these rights prior to interrogation. This eventually led to serious debate as to whether or not crime suspects were really aware of their rights before they confessed to a crime.

In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that suspects arrested for breaking the law must be informed of their right to remain silent and their right to counsel before being interrogated by law enforcement officers. This landmark decision came about from the trial of Ernesto Miranda. At his trial, Miranda was convicted of rape, kidnapping and robbery on the basis of his own police confession.

The problem with Miranda’s conviction was that it was based on a confession Miranda gave without full awareness of his Constitutional rights to remain silent and to have an attorney—rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendment. Miranda’s attorney appealed to the State Supreme Court, but they upheld the charges against Miranda.

The case was then brought before the U.S. Supreme Court where it was determined that Miranda’s testimony was received in violation of his Constitutional rights. As a result, Miranda’s charge of rape was dismissed. Miranda was later retried for the rape charge and convicted with evidence that did not include his prior, involuntary testimony. Miranda died in a bar fight shortly after being released from prison. Ironically, his murder went unsolved as the suspects in his death were read their Miranda rights, chose not to implicate themselves and were never charged with the crime.

Miranda rights have become an integral aspect of the American legal system. While prior to the Miranda decision, the courts did not allow forced confessions to be admitted as evidence, there was nothing in place to ensure that a suspect’s testimony was truly voluntary in nature. The Miranda decision created a rule to make sure that statements received by suspects are, in fact, voluntary and not coerced.

The ruling in the Miranda case states that crime suspects must be made aware of four things before they are questioned or interrogated:

  1. the right to remain silent,
  2. the fact that anything s/he says may be used against him/her in a court of law
  3. the right to an attorney, and
  4. the state’s obligation to provide legal counsel if a suspect can’t afford it.

Currently, if law enforcement agencies receive statements or interrogate suspects without reading them their Miranda rights, that testimony is not admissible as evidence in a court of law.

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