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Landmark court decisions that shaped our nation: Miranda vs. Arizona in 1963

Ernesto Miranda
Ernesto Miranda

Editor’s note: The Legal Office presents a series of articles highlighting famous court decisions that shaped American culture – both good and bad. The goal is to pique an interest in the law, and provide a deeper context and appreciation on how the rule of law works in this country and how it’s the foundation of society.

Chances are, you can recite along to the following phrase:

“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….”

But how did this common knowledge come to pass? It all started with a man: Ernesto Miranda.

In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested on kidnapping and rape charges and interrogated by Phoenix police. Miranda had not finished ninth grade, had a history of mental instability, and had no lawyer present. After two hours of interrogation, he signed a confession and, although he had not been notified of any rights he might have, the signed confession included a section that stated he was aware of his rights.

At trial, the prosecutor’s main piece of evidence was the confession, and Miranda was found guilty and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. He appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court claiming that the police had unconstitutionally entered his confession into evidence. That Court disagreed, and his conviction stood. Miranda then took his case to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, by a decision of 5-4, said the prosecutors could not introduce Miranda’s confession as evidence because the police had not informed him of his right to an attorney and against self-incrimination.

In their opinion, the Court discussed the societal issues that come from abusing these rights, and specifically discussed the high rates of police violence designed to compel confessions. Because of this intimidation, the Court continued, suspects were being deprived of their liberty and providing false confessions.

The Court devised the statements that we all are familiar with today, those that the police are required to tell a suspect who is in custody and interrogated. Specifically, these individuals have:

▪ The right to remain silent;

▪ The right to an explanation that anything they say can be used against them in court;

▪ The right to legal counsel; and

▪ The right to have counsel appointed if necessary.

The Supreme Court overturned Miranda’s conviction on the grounds that the confession was unconstitutionally admitted at trial. Prosecutors retried him and successfully convicted him without the use of his police confession.

He was released in 1972, but sent back to prison on a parole violation. After his release in 1975, he was stabbed and killed at the age of 35 in 1976 when an argument over less than three dollars during a card game turned into a violent bar fight. While transporting him to the hospital, police found autographed “Miranda Warning” cards on him, which he had been trying to sell. The man who stabbed him, Fernando Zamora, was arrested, read his “Miranda” rights, and chose to remain silent.

LITTLE KNOWN FACTS:

▪ Although Miranda’s name is the name used to reference the rights that came out of this case, there were actually four cases combined for review for the same issue. As such, there could easily today have “Vignera” rights, “Westover” rights, or “Stewart” rights;

▪ “Miranda” warnings have their limits: they apply to civilians who are in “custodial interrogation,” meaning that suspects are being interrogated while in police custody; and

▪ Military members have rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which actually offers more protection.

Under Article 31, military members have to be told of the nature of the accusation, that they do not have to make any statement regarding the offense of which they are suspected, and that any statement may be used against them in a court-martial. These rights went into effect almost 15 years before Miranda vs. Arizona.

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