After `Miranda,' Suspects' Rights Don't End When Cuffs Snap On

By Robert S. Kyff. Robert S. Kyff teaches history and English . | The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 1991 | Go to article overview

After `Miranda,' Suspects' Rights Don't End When Cuffs Snap On


Robert S. Kyff. Robert S. Kyff teaches history and English ., The Christian Science Monitor


`YOU have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney...."

During the past quarter century, most Americans have heard these rights read to suspects so often on television police dramas that the words have nearly lost their meaning. But other Americans have heard these words under circumstances less felicitous than watching TV in their own living-rooms: spread-eagled on a concrete sidewalk, handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser, or isolated in an interrogation room. For suspects being taken into police custody, the reading of these rights constitutes a precious safeguard against age-old enemies of human liberty - coerced confessions, self-incrimination, and rash disclosures induced by panic, confusion, or intimidation.

It was 25 years ago today, in the landmark case of Miranda vs. Arizona, that the US Supreme Court ruled that all suspects must be informed at the time they are taken into police custody of two rights guaranteed to them by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the US Constitution: the right not to testify against themselves and the right to representation by an attorney before any interrogation takes place.

The Miranda case began on March 13, 1963, when two Phoenix, Ariz., police detectives questioned a 23-year-old produce handler named Ernest Miranda about the rape of a young woman. The detectives, who claimed they were sure Miranda knew his rights because he had been arrested several times previously, said that Miranda confessed freely and voluntarily to committing the rape. Miranda said he was tired, confused, and frightened during the interrogation, and that he had confessed only because the officers threatened to "throw the book" at him unless he admitted the crime.

Three months later, largely on the basis of a confession he signed after the interrogation, Miranda was convicted of kidnaping and rape and sentence to 20 to 30 years in prison on each charge.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and volunteer defense attorneys, Miranda appealed his case to the higher courts of Arizona and, eventually, to the US Supreme Court. While the court's 1964 ruling in Escobedo vs. Illinois had overturned the conviction of a suspect who had repeatedly requested and been denied a lawyer and who had clearly never been informed of his rights, that case had left unresolved questions about just what obligations the police bore to inform suspects of their rights and at what point in the arrest process they must do so. …

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