Miranda v. Arizona Case Summary: What You Need to Know

A spotlight pointing at an empty chair in a dark interrogation room. Very detailed high resolution 3D render.

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Anyone who has watched TV has probably heard what's known as the "Miranda Warning:"

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

But many people don't know where this warning comes from, or when it must be used. Many people think they are supposed to be "read their rights" in any interaction with police. But, that's not necessarily the case.

The warning comes from a 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. ArizonaIn that case, the Supreme Court had to decide under what circumstances police must inform people of their rights under the Constitution's Fifth and Sixth Amendments - and how to do so.

Background of the Case

The Supreme Court's decision was a consolidation of four cases:

  • Miranda v. Arizona
  • Vignera v. New York
  • Westover v. United States
  • California v. Stewart

In all four, someone facing criminal charges was questioned by law enforcement while they were "cut off from the outside world." Ernesto Miranda, whose name is now attached to the famous decision, was brought in by Phoenix police officers as a person of interest in the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old girl. He voluntarily participated in a police line-up.

When the line-up was over, police interrogated Miranda for two hours until he confessed to the crime. He was never informed of his right to have an attorney present during interrogation. Nor was he told he had the right to remain silent. And although his confession differed slightly from the victim's description of the incident, he was convicted of the crime.

Because he was not adequately informed of his rights, the Supreme Court reversed Miranda's conviction and ordered that he have a new trial. On retrial, his confession was not given as evidence. However, he was convicted once again and served six years in prison.

What Is "Self-Incrimination?"

Even someone who isn't familiar with the ins and outs of the U.S. Constitution has probably heard of "pleading the 5th." This refers to the Fifth Amendment. Among other things, the Fifth Amendment states that a person cannot be forced to be a "witness against himself" in a criminal case. In other words, they can't be compelled to make statements that would expose them to criminal liability - they're protected against "self-incrimination."

For example, if the police ask someone where they were on a given day, and that person was robbing a bank, they can refuse to answer the question. Because if they do answer, they could be charged with a crime.

Sixth Amendment Right to An Attorney

The Sixth Amendment states that when someone is charged with a crime, they have the right to "the Assistance of Counsel." Meaning, they have the right to have an attorney assist them in their defense.

Over the years, the Supreme Court expanded the right to counsel to protect people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court held that someone who is not financially able to hire a lawyer "cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."

However, although the right to a public defender applies in most criminal cases, there are a few exceptions. Generally, someone will always be provided an attorney to help them if the charge they face could result in jail time. The right to an attorney also applies to minors.

Why Is Miranda v. Arizona Important?

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court recognized that because being questioned in police custody is inherently intimidating, people need to be informed of their rights. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the majority opinion:

"[I]t is not admissible to do a great right by doing a little wrong."

To that end, the Court held that police must ensure someone understands their right against self-incrimination before interrogating them in police custody. Otherwise, nothing the person says can be used against them in a criminal case.

The critical thing to note is "before interrogation in police custody." This means that Miranda does not apply to every interaction with the police. For the warning to be required, two things must happen:

  1. You must be in police custody (more on what this means below)
  2. There must be an interrogation

After police give the Miranda warning, a person can "knowingly and intelligently " waive these rights and agree to answer questions if they choose.

Miranda also places a heavy burden on the government in cases where someone confesses without an attorney present. The prosecutor must prove that the person knowingly and intelligently waived their right to counsel to get the confession admitted in Court.

However, it was a close decision, with five of the nine justices agreeing that Miranda and the other defendants' rights had been violated. The dissenting justices argued that there were already mechanisms to deal with the admissibility of confessions and that adding the warning placed an undue burden on law enforcement. But, more than 50 years later, the majority's decision stands.

What Does It Mean to Be "In Custody?"

Someone doesn't necessarily have to be handcuffed in the back of a squad car for Miranda to apply. There are other situations where someone should be informed of their rights even though they are not currently under arrest.

In Miranda, the Supreme Court decided that someone must be warned when "taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Generally, this means that someone who does not feel they are free to leave the presence of police officers is "in custody."

For example, if someone is asked to come to the police station to answer questions about an ongoing investigation, they might not be in custody. It depends on the circumstances. Is a police officer blocking the exit? Have they been told they can't leave until they answer questions? If so, they must be read their Miranda rights. On the other hand, someone standing on the street talking to the police is not, in most cases, considered to be in custody because they are free to walk away at any time.

Can the Police Ask Questions Without It Being an Interrogation?

People have lots of interactions with police that are not considered custodial interrogations. A traffic stop, for instance, typically doesn't require a Miranda warning because a motorist isn't entirely under police control. So, an officer can ask for someone's insurance information, ask if they've been drinking, etc. without reading them their rights.

Courts often look at the length of time a person is questioned, and where it occurs, to determine whether there was a custodial interrogation. A few minutes in a traffic stop or on the sidewalk usually won't fall under Miranda, while several hours at the police station will.

The common denominator of most custodial interrogations is that the person is often isolated and questioned is in an unfamiliar environment. The Supreme Court recognized in Miranda that when someone is being questioned one-on-one by police in a space law enforcement controls, they have essentially no power. These are the circumstances where the Miranda warning is required.

Does Answering Questions from Police Count as a Waiver of Rights?

No. Someone can assert the right to an attorney or their right to remain silent both before and during questioning. Under Miranda, as soon as someone requests an attorney, the interrogation must end. But anything said before making the request might be admissible.