“The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.”
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Miranda v. Arizona.
To commemorate the occasion, here’s a great write-up on why the case matters so much and how we can do even better going forward.
But you should read the opinion for yourself if you can. It chronicles the history of the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination. It catalogues many of the standard police interrogation practices that remain current today. And it makes a moral case for an adversarial system that respects the dignity of its people over an inquisitorial system that simply overpowers them.
This last point becomes ever more important in our lifetimes as the balance of power between people and the state shifts decidedly, and permanently, in favor of the state.
Whether you read it or not, below is the core of the Miranda opinion, which describes what we’ve come to know as the Miranda warnings and which I’ve revised to make easier to read.
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We spell out our holding with some specificity in the pages that follow, but briefly stated, it is this: a prosecution may not use any statement that people make to police in a custodial interrogation unless it demonstrates that police used effective safeguards to protect the right against self-incrimination. By custodial interrogation, we mean any questioning that police initiate after they take people into custody or otherwise deprive them of their freedom of action in any significant way.
For the safeguards to be employed, we require the following procedures in the absence of other, fully effective ways to inform people of their right to remain silent and ensure they have a continuous opportunity to exercise it.
Before any questioning, the police must warn people that they have a right to remain silent; that any statement they make may be used against them as evidence; that they have a right to have an attorney there with them before they’re interrogated; and that they’re entitled to have an attorney appointed for them if they can’t afford one.
People may waive these rights as long as they do so knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. But they also reserve the right to change their minds and ask for a lawyer at any time, and if they do, the police must stop questioning them. The mere fact that people may answer some questions or volunteer some statements on their own does not deprive them of the right to refrain from answering further questions until they’ve consulted an attorney and consented to more questioning.