One of America's most famous legal landmarks has been upheld in a strong reaffirmation of the constitutional right to be free from coercive police interrogations.
In a 7-to-2 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the failure by police to give so-called Miranda warnings of the "right to remain silent" automatically bars them from using a suspect's confession as evidence in trial.
In reaffirming the 1966 case, Miranda v. Arizona, the majority rejected an invitation to jettison 34 years of jurisprudence that civil libertarians say has provided important safeguards to criminal defendants and sought to guarantee a level of fundamental fairness in the American system of justice.
"The decision represents a vitally important reaffirmation by the Supreme Court of the national commitment to civil liberties for persons in police custody," says Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who filed a brief for the House Democratic Leadership in support of Miranda.
In its ruling, the high court declined to endorse an attempt by Congress more than 30 years ago to legislatively overturn the Miranda decision. That law, long ignored on the books, had instructed judges that they should take other factors into consideration in deciding whether a confession was made voluntarily and in compliance with constitutional safeguards.
Instead, the majority reaffirmed basic ruling in Miranda, that police must warn suspects of their right to remain silent and consult a lawyer. Any failure to warn them of those rights prior to a police interrogation will automatically result in the exclusion from trial of any incriminating statements made by the suspect. The warnings have become known as a result of their inclusion in many television and movie scripts.
"Miranda has become imbedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority. "Miranda announced a constitutional rule that Congress may not supersede legislatively."
The 15-page decision points up the importance of such constitutional safeguards to anyone facing arrest in the US who is unaware of the right to remain silent, and to consult a lawyer prior to answering any questions from police.
Defense lawyers and civil libertarians had warned that if the high court overturned Miranda, it could prompt police to revert to unfair, coercive, and perhaps even brutal interrogation tactics to force arrested suspects into confessing, rather than fully investigating crimes. The ruling marks a setback to law-enforcement officials and some victims rights groups, who saw the case as an opportunity to close what they viewed as a loophole that permitted some admitted criminals to avoid punishment because of what they call a legal technicality.