The Impact of Miranda Revisited

By Leo, Richard A. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Miranda Revisited


Leo, Richard A., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the direction of modern confession law in Miranda v. Arizona,(1) one of the most well-known and influential legal decisions of the twentieth century. Seeking to dispel the compelling pressures it believed to be inherent in the "police dominated atmosphere"(2) of custodial questioning in Miranda, the Warren Court promulgated the now familiar fourfold warnings(3) to silence and appointed counsel that must precede every interrogation before it can legally commence.(4) Absent a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent waiver of the prophylactic Miranda warnings, any admission or confession will be excluded from evidence in subsequent trial proceedings.(5)

While the Miranda opinion briefly noted both the history of the "third degree" in America(6) and the danger of false confessions,(7) it described the modem interrogation process as "psychologically rather than physically oriented."(8) Nevertheless, relying on standard police training manuals, the Miranda opinion characterized custodial police questioning as manipulative, heavy-handed, and oppressive - all of which threatened to overcome the rational decision-making capacity of suspects who were ignorant of their constitutional rights.(9) The fourfold warnings, according to the Court, were thus a necessary procedural safeguard to protect a suspect's underlying Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.(10)

Along with only a few other Supreme Court decisions, Miranda has generated enormous popular, political, and academic controversy.(11) In its immediate aftermath, the Miranda opinion was assailed by police, prosecutors, politicians, and media. Police officials complained indignantly that Miranda would handcuff their investigative abilities.(12) Politicians linked Miranda to rising crime rates. Richard Nixon publicly denounced Miranda and other Warren Court decisions as representing a victory of the crime forces, over the "peace forces" in American society, while individual congressmen called for Chief Justice Earl Warren's impeachment.(13) Congress as a whole responded to Miranda by attempting legislatively to invalidate its holding in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.(14) Newspaper editorials deplored the Warren Court's "coddling of criminals," while cartoonists lampooned the logic of the Miranda decision.(15) Almost thirty years later, Miranda remains a symbol of controversy in American society and continues to be assailed by its many critics. The Supreme Court's confession decisions since 1966 have steadily chipped away at both the letter and the spirit of Miranda.(16) The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Legal Policy under the Reagan Administration characterized the decision as illegitimate in a 120 page report recommending that the Department of Justice urge the Supreme Court to overrule Miranda altogether.(17) Police interrogation manual writers,(18) legal academics,(19) and newspaper editorials(20) continue to call for its abolition.

What has been lost in all the controversy, rhetoric, and calls for reform is any analysis of Miranda's actual effect on American police interrogation practices in routine felony cases. In the predecessor to this Article, I provided the first empirical study of American police interrogation practices in more than two decades.(21) In this Article, I will evaluate the long-term impact of the well-known Miranda decision on contemporary police attitudes, behavior, and culture. Both articles are based on extensive empirical research on the history and sociology of American police interrogation practices, including almost 200 police interrogations I observed in more than nine months of participant observation fieldwork inside the criminal investigation divisions of three police departments.(22) In Part II of this Article, I review the history and evolution of judicial attempts to regulate police interrogation methods through the constitutional law of criminal procedure. …

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