10 Facts About the Miranda Warning You Have the Right to Know
By Nick Keppler
On June 13, 1966, in Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that, in order for confessions and other information obtained while a suspect is in custody to be admissible in court, police had to first give a run-through of a few key aspects of the judicial system—starting, as any Law and Order fan knows, with the right to remain silent. In the 50 years since, the Court has codified several times just when and how a suspect should be Mirandized. (Yes, it’s a verb.) Here are 10 facts about Miranda rights.
1. NOT BEING READ HIS RIGHTS DIDN’T ALLOW MIRANDA TO GO FREE.
The Miranda in Miranda v. Arizona is Ernesto Arturo Miranda, a Phoenix man who had amassed a long rap sheet—including attempted rape, assault, and burglary—by his early 20s. In 1963, Phoenix Police arrested him for robbery and rape after a car believed to be involved was traced back to him. In the lineup, two victims thought he looked right, but neither was positive. A pair of officers questioned him for two hours in an interrogation room, emerging with a signed confession.
At the trial, Miranda’s defense attorney, Alvin Moore, tried to have the confession thrown out, arguing that Miranda, who hadn’t advanced beyond the ninth grade, was not properly made aware of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Miranda was convicted. His lawyer appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. The case caught the attention of Robert J. Corcoran, an attorney at the Phoenix branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, who helped take it to the U.S. Supreme Court
In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed Miranda’s conviction. “[W]e hold that, when an individual is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom by the authorities in any significant way and is subjected to questioning, the privilege against self-incrimination is jeopardized,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. “Procedural safeguards must be employed to protect the privilege.” The Court ruled that certain Fifth and Sixth Amendment safeguards were meaningless unless suspects like Miranda understood them during interrogation, given the enormous power possessed by police in such a situation.
But Miranda didn’t walk free, and the state of Arizona retried him. Even without the confession, the jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to 20 to 30 years. (Failure to give a Miranda warning doesn’t free a suspect on a technicality; it only means information obtained during post-arrest interrogation can’t be used in court.)
In 1971, Miranda was paroled; four years later, he returned to prison on a parole violation and was released again soon after. On January 31, 1976, he was fatally stabbed in a bar fight. Though no one was ever charged with or convicted of the murder, police did briefly detain a suspect. He was read his Miranda rights.
2. THE SCRIPT CAME FROM A CALIFORNIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY WITH A PRINTING BUSINESS.
While the Supreme Court gave a list of the rights individuals must be informed of, they didn’t come up with an exact script. That came from a meeting of California’s district attorneys held weeks after the decision. Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch appointed Assistant Attorney General Doris H. Maier and Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner to compose a short, easy-to-memorize script that relayed the essential rights stipulated in the court decision. It consisted of fewer than 100 words, including four statements and two questions:
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 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 any questioning, if you wish one. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?
Berliner had a side business in letterpress printing. He printed the Miranda warning on easy-to-carry vinyl cards (able to withstand a washing machine cycle in the pocket of a police uniform) and sent samples to law enforcement agencies across the country. He sold tens of thousands of the cards, popularizing the classic script familiar to criminals and TV viewers. Berliner would later say that he regretted adding “and will” to the warning, because “[i]t is not an exact statement of the truth of the situation” since not everything said will definitely be used against the suspect. But he liked how the sentence flowed.
3. THE SCRIPT WAS FURTHER POPULARIZED ON DRAGNET.
A stickler for procedural accuracy, actor/producer Jim Webb inserted the California-phrased Miranda warning into the NBC show upon its 1967 revival, reinforcing that wording as the standard.
4. SOME BORDER STATES ADD A LINE.
States along the U.S.-Mexico border add a line: “If you are not a United States citizen, you may contact your country's consulate prior to any questioning.”
5. THERE IS A PUBLIC SAFETY EXEMPTION.
In New York v. Quarles (1984), the Court carved out a public “safety exemption” for situations “in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety.”
This case stemmed from an incident that occurred in Queens in 1980. NYPD officer Frank Kraft darted into a grocery store to chase down a suspect. He had been forewarned the suspect, later identified as Benjamin Quarles, was armed. After Quarles surrendered, Kraft found an empty holster while doing a pat-down. “Where’s the gun?” he asked. Quarles gestured toward some empty milk cartons and said, “The gun is over there.” Police retrieved a loaded handgun. After that, an officer read Quarles the Miranda warning.
The State of New York charged Quarles with criminal possession of a weapon, among other crimes. The State exempted statements made pre-Miranda warning (as well as the gun), but as the case bounced from an appellate court to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices were cornered into ruling on the matter. Speaking for the majority, future Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “We conclude that the need for answers to questions in a situation posing a threat to the public safety”—such as the location of a loaded gun—“outweighs the need for the prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination.”
The exemption has been utilized in recent terrorism cases. In 2009, the FBI questioned the attempted “Christmas Day bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for nine hours before Mirandizing him. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to ignite a car bomb in Times Square, also spoke to investigators for several hours before being Mirandized. In 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bombing perpetrator, was in custody for 16 hours before he heard the Miranda script.
6. MIRANDA RIGHTS DON’T APPLY TO SIMPLE TRAFFIC STOPS.
Police officers don’t read Miranda rights during traffic stops, even though they do question drivers. In Berkemer v. McCarty (1984)—in which an Ohio man fought his DUI arrest on the grounds that the officer did not Mirandize him during the stop—the Supreme Court ruled that advisement of rights only applied when a suspect was in police custody.
7. MIRANDA RIGHTS DON’T PREVENT UNDERCOVER OFFICERS FROM OBTAINING ADMISSIBLE INFORMATION IN JAILS.
Miranda rights were codified again in 1990 in Illinois v. Perkins, which protected police working undercover.
Four years prior, long-time offender Lloyd Perkins told a fellow inmate, Donald Charlton, about a murder he had committed, but not been charged with. Charlton went to police, who had Officer John Parisi pose as an inmate at a jail in Montgomery County, Illinois. Charlton and his new associate tried to recruit Perkins in an escape plan that would involve killing guards. Undercover, Parisi asked Perkins if he’d ever “done” anyone, and Perkins confessed to the killing of Richard Stephenson in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1984.
Once convicted, Perkins’s attorneys tried to throw out the confession arguing Parisi had never Mirandized him. The Supreme Court made a distinction between police deception and coercion and ruled that a jail doesn’t have the inherently coercive and "police-dominated atmosphere" of an interrogation.
8. THE WARNING APPLIES TO SOME INTERROGATIONS OUTSIDE OF CUSTODY.
In another follow up to the Miranda case, John J. Fellers of Lincoln, Nebraska, impressively appealed his drug conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, without a lawyer, and the Court ruled 9-0 in his favor. After Fellers had been indicted, two police officers stopped by his home and questioned him about his drug problems before taking him to the station, Mirandizing him, and charging him with conspiring to distribute methamphetamine.
In Fellers v. United States (2004), the Court clarified the traditional understanding that Miranda rights began at arrest. Instead, the right to counsel began “at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated.” Because clearly judicial proceedings had begun and the intent of the meeting—regardless of location—was to exact information, Fellers should have been Mirandized as soon as it began.
9. MIRANDA WARNINGS MAY HAVE LOWERED CONFESSION RATES.
Many studies [PDF] have tried to document the impact of Miranda on confessions and crime-solving. The results can be difficult to understand and are often criticized within academia for parsing data one way or another. There is no consensus on Miranda’s impact on convicting suspects, but several studies have pointed to lowered rates of confession and self-incrimination since the decision.
A study of Pittsburgh police data found that 48.5 percent of suspects confessed from 1964 to the Miranda requirement and 32.3 percent did in the months after Miranda. However, researchers found no change in Pittsburgh’s conviction and clearance rates. A study of Miranda’s effects on criminal persecution in Manhattan found that confessions were used in court in 49 percent of felony cases in the six months before Miranda and in only 14.5 percent immediately afterwards. A study of serious crimes prosecuted by the Philadelphia District Attorney found that 90 percent of suspects gave some kind of statement before 1964. As Philadelphia police gradually introduced Fifth and Sixth Amendment warnings into interrogation, even before Miranda, that rate began to drop. By the start of 1967, only 40.7 percent of arrestees for the same crimes gave statements.
10. THE D.O.J.’S GUIDELINES ON MIRANDIZING DEAF SUSPECTS: DON’T; JUST GET A LAWYER.
Department of Justice training material recommends that police not even question Deaf suspects until a lawyer for that person is present because of the Miranda hurdle. Providing a written Miranda warning is ill advised because it assumes the suspect reads at a level to understand it. Lip-reading is also inadequate; only 5 percent of spoken words can be understood through the technique. Agencies might be tempted to bring in a sign language interpreter, but many legal and technical terms are not easily conveyed in sign language. Just wait for a lawyer.