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"I swear I didn't take the last cookie."
"Where's my lawyer?"
"Better call Saul."
What do you do when you're getting the third degree and it's just you and the police and they're getting pretty…insistent? It's not always a good cop/bad cop situation. Sometimes it's just bad.
Enter Miranda v. Arizona.
Both good guys and bad guys caught a real break when the United States Supreme Court made a decision in 1966 on the case of Miranda v. Arizona. It's where we get the famous "Miranda Warning," which, in the unlikely case you've never seen a cop show, is what police officers are required to read to someone before they ask any questions. You know, as they're dragging off the perp and shouting, "You have the right to remain silent!" Yeah…that.
The case is named for Ernesto Miranda, who'd been arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping. The police interrogated him for two hours in a small room, and he confessed to the crime. His confession was allowed as evidence even though the police admitted they hadn't told him he had the right to have an attorney present during the questioning and that he didn't have to answer their questions.
He was found guilty and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison on each count.
Miranda's attorney decided to appeal the case to the Arizona Supreme Court based on the police's failure to inform Miranda of his Constitutional rights. That court upheld the original decision; they said that since Miranda didn't request an attorney, his rights weren't violated. Not to be deterred, Miranda's lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States (we like to call them by their rap name, SCOTUS) to hear the case. They agreed, giving Shmoop the opportunity to write this guide and giving you the opportunity to be informed by the police of your constitutional guarantees: the right not to incriminate yourself and the right for an attorney to be present during questioning.
Oh, and it's a free attorney, if you can't afford one yourself.
Miranda was ultimately found guilty of his crimes at a retrial in 1967, using witness testimony instead of his confession to convict him and sentence him to 20-30 years in prison. Again.
But ever since the Supremes tried the Miranda case, police are required by law to warn us that we have the right to remain silent; that anything we say can be used against us in a court of law; that we have the right to an attorney; and that if we can't afford one, they'll get us one. If the police haven't read you these rights, then anything you say while you're in custody can't be used in court.
Even if you confess to the crime.
The Miranda decision was hugely controversial when it was announced. Some members of Congress called for Chief Justice Earl Warren's impeachment; newspaper editorials accused the court of coddling criminals; the police said it would now be impossible to do their jobs; and people warned that crime rates would skyrocket (source).
Turns out, none of that happened.
While the Miranda protections probably won't keep you from eventually getting convicted if you did steal that last cookie, they will make sure you get a chance to talk to the police on your own terms. And, of course, they might help you if you've been falsely accused. And who hasn't been framed for cookie burglary?
Hopefully, none of us will ever be arrested and questioned in police custody, whether it's for murder or for using the word "hopefully" to start a sentence. But it's sure nice to know that Uncle Sam's got our back if we are. The Miranda v. Arizona case resulted in the absolute requirement that everyone must be reminded of their rights when questioned by the police, which is a huge help to everyone who fell asleep in government class during the unit about the Constitution.
Remember the Fifth Amendment? How about the Sixth? Can you recite them by heart? Not unless you're a lawyer, we're guessing. And that's normal—most people don't have the Constitution memorized. And even if they do, they'll probably forget it by the time they're handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
That's where the Miranda Warning comes in. Requiring the police to remind us of our rights helps us not make the mistake of saying something that could get us into more trouble than we're already in.
"But wait," you say. "Bad guys should get in trouble because they…did something bad. We shouldn't have to help them hide their crimes."
But the big idea behind the Miranda Warning is that it lessens the chances of police officers doing not-so-legal things to get you to confess. In Ernesto Miranda's situation, he was locked in a small room, asked a lot of tricky questions, and probably had words put in his mouth (figuratively, of course). Also, he wasn't the most emotionally stable guy on the planet. Miranda did commit the crimes he was accused of, but how the police got to that information wasn't quite kosher. If you've seen Making a Murderer, you probably have some opinions about other versions of the same situation.
We've all read stories about forced confessions, about being asked lots of leading questions during interrogations, and even about suspects who are threatened or mistreated in custody. In his Miranda ruling, Chief Justice Warren explicitly acknowledged those pressures and created rules that he hoped would prevent them. He knew that even if the police are on their best behavior, being in custody is a pretty unnerving experience for everyone.
And you might have left your copy of the Constitution in the car.
Everybody—guilty or innocent—deserves a fair shake. That's the awesome part of the Miranda ruling: equal protection under the law extends to everybody. You're not denied your rights just because you're suspected of breaking the law. As Chief Justice Warren wrote in his majority opinion, if people in law enforcement break the law, then why does anyone else have to follow it?
And anyway, maybe you didn't even start that sentence with hopefully after all.
Just in Case
An entire site dedicated to your Miranda rights. Includes answers to questions such as, "can remaining silent be used against me?" A good place to go for questions and answers.
PBS Does Miranda v. Arizona
PBS has a series on landmark Supreme Court cases, with brief yet informative descriptions.
Those words are spoken before every session of the Supreme Court. Oyez.org is a website dedicated to making the decisions of the Court accessible to everybody. You can binge-listen to arguments and read summaries of every case and bios of every Justice.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
The popular TV show Dragnet had tons of references to the Miranda Warning, as the warning was a new and controversial thing back then.
79% of Minority Suspects Receive Miranda Rights While Unconscious
An article from The Onion, which means it's not true. But it could make you chuckle…or get depressed.
Miranda Rights for Suspected Terrorists?
Should American citizens who are suspected of terrorism get their Miranda Warning?
Miranda on TV
TV is not real, people. We just like to think it is.
Yale Law prof Steven Duke thinks Miranda has done more harm to suspects than good. Here's why.
Miranda v. Arizona by Keith Hughes
Keith Hughes has an entertaining and informative channel on government and history, and here he explains the Miranda v. Arizona court case.
Miranda! The Musical
Not really—it's a documentary about the Miranda ruling presented by the Annenberg Institute of Civics. Wait—that could be really cool if we could get Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a musical about the case. He's into history, right?
The Supreme Court debated how much of the Miranda Warning should apply to those under the age of 18.
Here he is, looking sharp for one of his many court dates.
Chief Justice Earl Warren
The man, the myth, the legend. Except he was real.