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Choosing the rule of law: a tribute to the Miranda decision

This year our nation marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps one of the best-known U.S. Supreme Court cases, Miranda v. Arizona.

In 1958 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 to be Law Day USA, he stated, “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law.” Each year the American Bar Association designates a Law Day theme to highlight an important issue relating to the law or legal system. In 2016, our nation marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps one of the best-known U.S. Supreme Court cases, Miranda v. Arizona. It is the Miranda decision that is this year’s Law Day theme.

Judge Kevin S. Burke

The Miranda warning is perhaps the most well known legal concept, no doubt the result of countless recitations in films and television shows. In March 1963, 23-year-old Ernesto Miranda was arrested, suspected of robbery and of kidnapping and raping a woman in Phoenix, Arizona. At a police station in Phoenix, Miranda was interrogated by police for two hours without any warning about his right to have an attorney present or to remain silent. He confessed, and despite objections by his lawyer, Miranda’s confession was presented to the jury at his trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.  

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona held that Miranda’s constitutional rights were not violated when the police officers obtained Miranda’s confession. But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Miranda’s conviction and held, “without proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of crime contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would otherwise do so freely.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a defendant “must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.”

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Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was a former prosecutor, pointed out in the Supreme Court’s decision the practice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, both of which required notifying a suspect of his right to remain silent; the FBI warning included notice of the right to counsel.

Majority accused of overreacting

The dissenting justices accused Warren and the majority of overreacting to the problem of coercive interrogations. The dissenters believed that, once warned, suspects would always demand attorneys, and deny the police the ability to gain confessions. President Richard Nixon said that the U.S. Supreme Court should focus on protecting law-abiding citizens, rather than criminals: “Our courts have gone too far in their decisions weakening the peace forces against the criminal forces in the United States of America.” But it was more than rhetoric about a controversial Supreme Court Decision. Nixon supported legislation trying to overrule the Miranda decision by statute.

Miranda was retried after the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a new trial. This time the prosecution, instead of using the confession, called witnesses, including a woman with whom Miranda was living at the time of the offense. She testified that Miranda had told her of committing the crime. Miranda was again convicted in 1967 and again sentenced to serve 20 to 30 years. He was paroled in 1972. After his release, he returned to his old neighborhood and made a modest living autographing police officers’ “Miranda cards” which contained the text of the warning, for reading to arrestees. He was stabbed to death during an argument in a bar on Jan. 31, 1976.

The selection of William Rehnquist to be an associate justice in 1972 was an important part of Nixon’s strategy for appointing “law and order” justices to the Supreme Court. The Miranda decision was among many Warren Court rulings Justice William Rehnquist vehemently opposed. Yet, after having repeatedly ridiculed the constitutional soundness of the decision requiring police officers to read suspects their Miranda rights, Rehnquist voted to uphold it.

Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture,” he wrote in a 7-2 opinion for the Court in Dickerson v. U.S., in 2000. Rehnquist’s change of heart about Miranda provoked one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s most vitriolic dissenting opinions. Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Scalia declared, “Today’s judgment converts Miranda from a milestone of judicial overreaching into the very Cheops’ Pyramid (or perhaps the Sphinx would be a better analogue) of judicial arrogance.”

Minnesota went further in ’94

The Miranda warning has become a routine in the police field and not only have police learned to accept it, but many law enforcement authorities now believe that it helps them do a better job of ensuring the evidence they collect will hold up in court. In 1994 the Minnesota Supreme Court held that Miranda warnings alone were not enough. The court, following a case in Alaska, held that to ensure fair administration of justice, all custodial interrogation including any information about rights, any waiver of those rights, and all questioning shall be electronically recorded where feasible and must be recorded when questioning occurs at place of detention. Furthermore, if law enforcement officers fail to comply with this recording requirement, any statements the suspect makes in response to interrogation may be suppressed at trial.

It is often hard for those who are not part of the criminal justice system to initially accept rulings like the Miranda warning. But what we know after 50 years of experience is that false confessions do occur and are a major reason for wrongful convictions. Our criminal justice system has faults, but the Miranda decision 50 years later is the embodiment of what President Eisenhower hoped for in creating Law Day: a democracy that chooses not force, but the rule of law.

Kevin S. Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and past president of the American Judges Association


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