Study Guide

Miranda v. Arizona Historical Context

By Supreme Court of the United States

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Historical Context

Woodstock. Vietnam protests. The Summer of Love. Civil rights.

The 1960s were all about the three Rs: rock, reform, and revolution. The times, as Bob Dylan sang, were a-changin'. Timothy Leary told us to question authority, and that's just what we did.

Without the LSD, let it be noted.

When Chief Justice Warren wrote the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case outlawing segregation in public schools and other facilities, his court validated the years of struggle for African Americans to secure their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For the next ten years, the civil rights struggle illuminated not only the plight of African Americans, but also the need to support the civil liberties due to all Americans.

Because appeals to "law and order" were often used as excuses to brutally beat and occasionally murder civil rights protesters, the police became the objects of distrust and suspicion. Not all cops deserved that suspicion, but lots of them, especially in the South, did. Peaceful black marchers in the segregated South were routinely savagely assaulted and jailed. In 1964, the police in Philadelphia, Mississippi colluded with the local Ku Klux Klan to ambush and murder three civil rights workers who were in town registering African Americans to vote.

Miranda v. Arizona fit perfectly with the zeitgeist of those tumultuous times. Miranda benefited by living in a time that was all about making sure people knew what their government was doing, and how it was carrying out its actions—police included. People feared that, in the privacy of the interrogation room, anything could happen. Confessions could be coerced and suspects could be bullied and threatened.

A bunch of police misconduct cases came through the court system around this time (think: Gideon v. Wainwright and Escobedo v. Illinois), so the public and the Supreme Court were well aware that a more critical eye was being pointed at law enforcement. Ernesto Miranda's case was one of four cases lumped together and taken to the Supreme Court with the same constitutional question. Vignera v. New York, Westover v. United States, and California v. Stewart are the other three; in each, a man was convicted using a confession as evidence, but he hadn't been told about his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

In fact, there were already several judicial precedents (i.e., accepted rules concerning whatever issue is being debated) in place when Miranda reached the Supreme Court. Check out the three biggies in this situation:

  • Only voluntary confessions could be used in court, thanks to the Wan v. United States case (among others). 
  • The Escobedo v. Illinois case had set the precedent of a defendant's right to a lawyer during questioning. 
  • Gideon v. Wainwright had declared that if a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to them by the state.

The question before SCOTUS in Miranda was whether a person's Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves applied to the situation of police custody as well as court.

It did.

People who thought that changes in the 1960s were too much too fast worried about the Miranda ruling. They thought it handed power back to the criminals and that this whole civil liberties thing was getting out of hand. And anyway, most police obeyed proper interrogation procedures and weren't interested in railroading suspects. But Warren's opinion was that the best way to get people to obey the law was to make sure they had access to its protections in all situations, whether they were upright citizens or career criminals like Ernesto Miranda.

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