Study Guide

Miranda v. Arizona Themes

By Supreme Court of the United States

  • Interpretation of Law

    From time to time, the Supreme Court blows it big time.

    Take Dred Scott v. Sandford, or Plessy v. Ferguson, when they upheld pro-slavery and pro-segregation policies, respectively. As the last-ditch go-to deciders for legal matters, the Supreme Court justices have a heavy burden of responsibility. Since in most cases there are no backsies once the Supremes have made their decision, we can only hope they get it right.

    But what's right and just isn't the same for everyone, even the justices of the Supreme Court. There are two sides in every trial, and when the Supreme Court makes a decision, someone is going to get burned. Even though their decisions are grounded in legal history and their knowledge of the Constitution, justices have their own interpretations about what the Constitution says about rights and responsibilities.

    In Miranda v. Arizona, everyone on the Court heard the same arguments, but they came to different conclusions about what was really justice for Ernesto Miranda.

    Questions About Interpretation of Law

    1. What was the 1960s Supreme Court's view of justice, and how does that view compare to today's?
    2. Is justice still done if a Supreme Court's decision (like in Miranda v. Arizona) results in a criminal going free?
    3. The Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona resulted in strict rules for police, and more protections for suspects. Does the Miranda ruling get in the way of police dealing out justice?

    Chew on This

    In creating the Miranda Warning, the Supreme Court made it clear that justice in America is as much about protecting the criminal as it is the public.

    According to the Supreme Court, justice is about following the Constitution and holding its rights and freedoms to be more important than the actions of a few criminals.

  • Law and Order

    No doing 50 in a 35 MPH zone; no staying out after 1 AM; no texting while driving; no bribing your senator to lower the legal drinking age; no printing your own money.

    Laws are a pain, right?

    Not really, you anarchist.

    Most laws exist to keep us safe and protect the social order from spiraling into chaos. Speed limits are meant to keep people from dying in car crashes. Texting while driving is…well, you know. The right to a lawyer is meant to protect suspects from being hurt or pressured by their interrogators. And the right to remain silent is meant to protect us from the police putting words in our mouths.

    The Warren Court was aware that, in many places across the country, the police were bad, very very bad—coercing confessions, pressuring and threatening suspects, and in some cases physically torturing people who they were supposed to be just questioning. There were laws about that, natch, but in the isolation of the interrogation room, anything could (and did) happen. The new Miranda rule was supposed to prevent that kind of stuff from happening, even if it seemed like just another burdensome rule for the police.

    Questions About Law and Order

    1. Is it okay to bend (or even break) the Miranda rules in order to make sure an obviously guilty criminal goes to jail?
    2. How did Warren and Harlan differ in their thoughts about what the Miranda rule would to do "order" in society?
    3. What did the Court think would happen without rules like the Miranda Warning?

    Chew on This

    The police should have a set of rules for doing their job, in order to protect against corruption and unfair practices.

    It's okay for the police to sometimes break the rules, because their job requires them to do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys.

  • Police Misconduct

    A couple teenagers felt all Bonnie-and-Clyde when they held up that gas station attendant at knifepoint and got him to empty the cash drawer. (Shmoop disclaimer: This is for instructional purposes only; don't try it. Armed robbery is bad, m'kay?) But now they're sitting in a small room in a police station, surrounded by officers with guns. They can't leave. The officers have arrested them, probably handcuffed them, and brought them to the station. Those two kids aren't feeling so powerful now, are they? They know who holds the cards at this point.

    What's to stop the police from abusing their power in situations like that, even if someone has just committed a crime? Well, the Supreme Court for one. The Justices had heard lots of cases of police misconduct with suspects in custody that resulted in forced confessions and self-incriminating statements. A big part of the Miranda v. Arizona decision had to do with trying to return some degree of power to the suspect.

    Even if they'd just held up a 7-Eleven.

    Questions About Police Misconduct

    1. Why didn't the majority believe that police should have unlimited power when it comes to trying to solve a case or bring a criminal to justice?
    2. What did the dissent say about police misconduct?
    3. Why did the majority think that even criminals should have some power during their interrogation?

    Chew on This

    Police cannot be trusted to use their power responsibly, so it's up to the government and the courts to set rules and regulations to limit that power.

    It's the responsibility of the police to keep the people safe, therefore they should have the power they need to do that job.

  • Morality and Ethics

    In making their decision in Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court let some bad people off the hook. Yes, many of those criminals returned to court and were still found guilty. But let's face it, in trying to protect the Constitutional rights of citizens, the Court made it easier for the bad guys to get away—or at least made it harder for the cops to get those bad guys into jail. What's more important: making sure the police are following the rules, or making sure they're keeping us safe by locking up criminals?

    The Court is trying hard to do the right thing. And that's not always the legal thing. Think about Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court said that it's not a violation of the Constitution to allow the states to require segregated public schools and facilities, as long as they're equal. (They weren't, but that's another story.)

    The Opinions v. Dissents in Miranda v. Arizona illustrate that you can draw very different ethical conclusions based on the very same situation. What's going to produce the most good for society? Is what's good for suspects good for society at large? Do laws always have ethical purposes?

    Answer: it's complicated.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Does the court's Opinion say it's okay for the police to do some coercive things in order to remove a criminal from the streets? Put another way, does the end justify the means?
    2. Does the Miranda ruling favor the bad guys?
    3. Was the Miranda decision sidestepping morality issues in giving rights to suspected criminals?

    Chew on This

    In Miranda v. Arizona, the court made a strong moral statement that the law has to apply equally to the good guys and the bad guys.

    The end justifies the means: as long as bad guys go to jail, that's the greater good. It's okay to give the police a little leeway in how they catch and convict those criminals.

  • The Constitution: Living or Dead?

    Our rights as Americans are based on the Constitution.

    Just one problem: the Constitution was written in the 1780s, when slavery was legal, women couldn't vote, and people thought wigs were cool. So are the rights in that document set in stone? Is the Constitution a living document that needs reinterpretation when society changes?

    The issue gets messier when you're talking about criminal activity. Many people believe that criminals should have a different (read: less awesome) set of rights, that they forfeit some of their constitutional freedoms when they decide to steal, murder, extort, hack, drive drunk, or talk crap about The Bachelor.

    In Miranda v. Arizona, Warren was very clear that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone; you don't have to earn your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights by being a good citizen.

    Questions About The Constitution: Living or Dead?

    1. Why does the majority opinion state that suspects should be given rights? They're criminals.
    2. Why shouldn't suspects be given rights? They're people too.
    3. Where does Harlan stand on the rights of criminals?
    4. What does Harlan say about the rights of society at large?

    Chew on This

    Suspects haven't been convicted of anything, so they should have all the rights of any citizen.

    Sorry, but if the police believe you've violated society's rights, you've broken the contract and given up the freedoms and privileges that everyone else gets.