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Miranda: The Right to Know?

Whatever happens following Wednesday's Supreme Court oral argument over the fate of Miranda warnings— whichever path the Court ultimately chooses—you'll still have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney if you desire and the right to a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford one.

You'll still be protected, for the most part, from having your forced or coerced confession make its way into your criminal trial in violation of your 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The main difference between a Court decision affirming Miranda or a Court decision rejecting it will be in the way law enforcement officials communicate those rights and realities to you.

If Miranda survives, cops still will be required to read you your rights just like you see in the movies, and their failure to do so automatically will protect you from having to answer for whatever you happen to say to them.

If Miranda dies, cops no longer will be required to tell you upon arrest that "you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law, etc..."

Supporters of the Miranda decision claim that the clear and unequivocal communication of those specific rights makes all the difference in the world given the reality that most people (believe it or not) aren't lawyers and don't know about all the rights to which they are guaranteed under the Constitution.

The folks who want cops to continue reading Miranda also argue that the universal warning is necessary to help ensure that people have confidence in how their police act toward suspects behind precinct doors.

Opponents of the Miranda decision claim that the warnings are superfluous and result in too many acquittals when otherwise fine confessions are tossed out of court because police officers make tiny mistakes in technical violation of Miranda.

These folks argue that the warning is not guaranteed by a valid interpretation of the Constitution and thus can—and has—been effectively overruled by statute.

And the reason that the issue is before the Supreme Court in the first place is because the notably conservative 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals essentially agreed with Miranda's opponents. That federal court ruled that the Miranda warnings aren't a requirement but merely a suggestion that Congress has endorsed as just that -- a suggestion.

So at specific issue Wednesday is whether a 1968 federal statute—enacted in the wake of the Court's 1966 Miranda ruling—effectively trumps the Court's decision and makes confessions admissible even when the famous warning isn't properly given to a suspect.

Under the federal law, a judge could allow in a non-Mirandized confession if it was otherwise demonstrated to be voluntary. The Miranda warning, in other words, would be only one of several factors for judges to evaluate in determining whether a suspect's confession ought to be used against him or er.

There are a couple of things to remember as you evaluate what you think about all of this.

First, confessions aren't the norm in criminal cases, so the practical effect of this ruling won't be as enormous as some suggest.

On the other hand, it is hard to ignore the reality that straightforward guidelines like this help keep overzealous police officers in line and everyone on the same page about the interaction between cop and suspect.

Figuring out what to do with Miranda is a tough call, which is why the issue is causing so much angst among defense attorneys and prosecutors alike, and which is also why everyone who has looked at it all closely expects a 5-4 decision one way or another.

Stay tuned.


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