President's Message

On 50th anniversary of landmark Miranda decision, is it more than mere words?

  • Print

Paulette Brown

Photo of ABA President Paulette Brown by Marc Hauser.

All of us have heard these words, even if we have never been arrested. The Miranda warning is ingrained in our consciousness through decades of popular culture references. From Dragnet to Law & Order to How to Get Away with Murder, it has been repeated so often that most Americans can recite it by heart.

The general public knows and identifies with Miranda. Of the major cases in American history, only Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona have been afforded the pop-diva gold star—being a household name on a one-word basis, widely referred to as simply Brown or Miranda.

But as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case that spawned the warning, do we really understand what those words currently mean? With the theme “Miranda: More than Words,” the Law Day 2016 celebrations, which will run from April 26 to May 1, will educate the public about what these rights truly entail and their importance to our justice system.

The Miranda warning may resonate so well with much of the American populace because of what it symbolizes. In the public imagination, as well as in the framers’ intentions, “Mirandizing” a suspect reinforces the American notion of a fundamental right of liberty.

On the continuum of liberty and security, Miranda warnings are right in the middle—striking a balance between the governmental interest in fighting crime and the framers’ intent to make it hard for the government to deprive an individual of liberty.

In this country, all are theoretically considered innocent until proven guilty. That principle extends beyond the court of law, starting at the moment police determine that they wish to deprive citizens of their liberty by holding them in custody.

But as the courts look to find balance between the government’s interest in obtaining admissible information and citizens’ interest in protecting their rights, has the effectiveness of Miranda decreased?

The posture of the court has shifted. Individual protections have taken a definitive back seat to government interests. Now there is a requirement that there be proof of coercive police activity in order to invalidate a confession as involuntary.

The Supreme Court’s Berghuis v. Thompkins decision in 2010 held that the act of remaining silent was, on its own, insufficient to imply that the suspect had invoked Miranda rights. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Salinas v. Texas that a suspect’s failure to answer police questions before an arrest could be used against him at trial.

What’s more, Miranda’s promise that an attorney will be provided for those who cannot afford one is threatened by cuts to public defenders’ offices. In Louisiana, for example, some public defenders offices have closed, more than a quarter of them have restricted services and almost 75 percent of them could run out of money by 2017.

Miranda has had its critics since it was decided in 1966. In the 1980s, the Reagan justice department described the ruling as “a derelict on the waters of the law” and championed that “overturning Miranda would … be among the most important achievements of this administration.”

But over its half century, Miranda has helped curb many of the most blatant abuses in the interrogation process even as it evolves. That evolutionary process is sure to continue as technological advances and societal changes will force the courts to re-examine Miranda.

For now, we need to ensure that all Americans are aware of their rights and know how to exercise them. This helps to guarantee due process. Law Day 2016 is a start, but we must continue our vigilance and not allow deviations in interpretations that could allow law enforcement to sidestep Miranda.

Former Justice Walter V. Schaefer of the Illinois Supreme Court summed it up best in a quote highlighted by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in his Miranda decision: “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.”

• Follow President Brown on Twitter @Brown4Lawyers.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: ” ‘You Have the Right to Remain Silent’: On 50th anniversary of landmark Miranda decision, is it more than mere words?”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.