Miranda v. Arizona

„You are arrested. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court…“, the police officer states while handcuffing the bad guy. We all know these phrases from American movies. Even though they sound pretty cool, they were not invented by Hollywood. This text will give you an insight into and background of the so-called “Miranda Warnings”.
Ernesto Miranda was arrested by police in Phoenix, AZ and charged with kidnapping and rape of a young woman. Miranda signed a confession after having been interrogated by police for two hours. While the confession document contained a paragraph stating that the suspect understood his rights and, thus, confessed voluntarily, police officers did not tell Miranda at any time about his rights – among them the right to have an attorney attend the interrogation at all times.
In court, his attorney tried to have the confession ruled inadmissible since his client was not told about his rights before he confessed. Nonetheless, the judge allowed the jury to consider the confession which resulted in Miranda found guilty on both counts and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The Supreme Court Introduces Procedural Safeguards

His attorney argued in an appeal submitted to the Arizona State Supreme Court that the confession was obtained in violation of his 5th Amendment protections against self-incrimination. As the Arizona State Supreme Court upheld the decision, the attorney then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus which led the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. The SCOTUS considered it along with three similar cases, all about using statements of suspects who had been questioned in police custody without being told about their rights or giving them an opportunity to have their lawyers attend the interrogations.
The SCOTUS ruled 5-4 in favor of overturning the Arizona court decision (384 U.S. 436 (1966)). It stated that Miranda’s confession was obtained unlawfully and could not be used in court. The Arizona court could now retry Miranda but had to refrain from using the evidence from his confession.

Justice Brennan’s comments on the decision

To clear away the uncertainty among law enforcement officers about their obligation and extent of informing suspects of their rights, the court set up the following procedural safeguards:

  1. Prior to questioning, a suspect must be advised of his right to remain silent.
  2. Anything a suspect does say may be used against him in a court of law.
  3. Suspects have a right to have an attorney present during questioning. The attorney may either be chosen by the suspect or appointed by the authorities.
  4. A suspect may waive the right to an attorney if desired, provided he does so voluntarily.
  5. If a suspect wishes to have an attorney present, all questioning will cease until an attorney is present.
  6. A suspect may at any time, even if the right to an attorney has been waived, refuse to answer any further questions without benefit of counsel.

The Miranda decision was controversial, even four Justices dissented. Justice John Marshall Harlan feared that the Court was putting society at risk with what he felt was a „hazardous experimentation“ since he believed that the decision will discourage any confessions at all. The consequences of the decision were that police departments all over the country ordered their officers to carry cards with the first four items of the above list printed on them. They became known as the „Miranda Warnings“ which are since read to suspects as they are placed in custody and before any questioning is lawfully allowed.
After the decision, Ernesto Miranda was retried in Arizona and convicted without the confession and had to go to prison. After Miranda was paroled, he traveled around the southwestern United States autographing „Miranda Warning“ cards for the local police until he was stabbed to death in a quarrel over a card game.

Gideon v. Wainwright

Having an attorney present is one of the rights of accused people in the USA and is also mentioned in the Miranda Warnings. Before 1966, however, this right was not guaranteed to everybody. Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for breaking into a pool hall in Panama City, Florida. In the following, he was tried in a Florida state court. Appearing in court, Gideon asked the judge to appoint an attorney for him at the state’s expense as he was unable to afford one. The judge told Gideon that under Florida law, he could not appoint legal counsel except in cases involving capital crimes. According to court records Gideon then said that the SCOTUS would say that he was entitled to be represented by legal counsel. Without a lawyer, he then conducted his own defense to the best of his abilities. He was, however, found guilty of the charge and sent to prison for five years.
In the prison library, Gideon prepared an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, he claimed that the judge’s decision to deny him a court appointed attorney violated rights he was guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The State Supreme Court denied the appeal, but he then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The court issued a writ of certiorari, meaning that they decided to review the case, to the Florida courts requesting the respective case’s records.

Betts v. Brady

In the similar case of Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), the SCOTUS had decided that the right to legal counsel was not such a fundamental right that it should always be comprise state courts. Abe Fortas, the attorney who was appointed by the Court for Gideon, was asked to show cause why the Court should reconsider its decision in Betts. v. Brady.
The Court ruled unanimously to overrule Betts v. Brady. It declared that the 14th Amendment obliged states to follow the 6th Amendment and provide counsel to indigent defendants in all criminal trials. Justice Hugo Black wrote an opinion shared by all justices:
The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours […] This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
This decision brought the review of thousands of other cases throughout the country in which poor defendants had been tried without legal counsel. Many people serving prison sentences were released, while others, like Gideon, faced trial once more. He was tried before the same court again, but with the assistance of counsel, he was found not guilty.
Because of Gideon’s pauper’s petition to the United States Supreme Court, no one accused of a crime has to stand trial in any court in the land without benefit of counsel unless he or she specifically refuses it. In addition, many cities have created the position of „public defender“, a staff of lawyers paid by the governments to defend people who cannot afford attorneys.

You can contact the author at david.berendes@junge-transatlantiker.de.