If you have ever watched a police procedural television drama, you likely have at least a passing familiarity with “Miranda Warnings,” the colloquial term for the requirement that criminal suspects be informed of certain legal rights before answering police questions while in custody.
We call these Miranda warnings because of a criminal defendant named Ernesto Miranda who confessed to the rape and kidnap of an 18 year old woman in Phoenix, Arizona in 1963. He intercepted her after she got off a public bus on the way home from work, forced her into his car, and drove her to another location where he raped her.
Her story is now the subject of a movie, released last year, called “Miranda’s Victim.” It is a fascinating look at one of the Supreme Court’s most famous cases but from the victim’s point of view.
Prosecutors used Miranda’s confession against him at trial, resulting in his conviction and imprisonment. His lawyers appealed the case to the US Supreme Court at a time in history when jurisprudence had begun shifting to expand the Bill of Rights to the states, especially in the area of criminal procedure, thanks to then Chief Justice Earl Warren. Miranda, his lawyers argued, had only an eighth-grade education and could not be expected to know he did not have to speak to them.
Warren’s opinion overturned Miranda’s conviction. Warren shifted the interpretation of the Constitution from outlining what the government could not do to its citizens, to finding in the Fifth Amendment a burden on police to educate criminal defendants about their rights before questioning while in police custody.
What the Supreme Court did not and could not do was erase the fact that an 18 year old girl had been raped and kidnapped. Unfortunately for Miranda, he had not confined his chattiness about his despicable crimes to the police. He had confessed to his girlfriend at the time and her testimony proved instrumental in his second conviction, placing him back in prison less than a year later.
While Miranda may have become the de facto poster boy against improper police interrogations, the real heroes of this story are the police who investigated him and the prosecutors who doggedly tried him and then re-tried him, even after being thwarted by the Supreme Court. Most importantly, his victim had to endure not one, but two trials, testifying and reliving a vicious rape at a time in history when victims were put on trial and challenged as much as the defendants who savaged them.
Miranda eventually left prison on parole but was stabbed and killed in a bar fight. Ironically, the suspect in his murder invoked the very rights Miranda had secured for defendants and never stood trial.
Because the Miranda decision created, as described by Justice Alito, a “judicially crafted rule,” it continues to be debated and challenged, although it will likely never be overruled. Even though criminal law and procedure are best left to the legislature, Miranda has become embedded in what former Chief Justice Rehnquist called our “national culture.”
That is the problem with sweeping Supreme Court decisions that stray far beyond corrective justice and textual interpretation and wade into morality and policy preferences. Most suspects waive their Miranda rights, so they do not even take advantage of the protections Chief Justice Warren established. A judicial opinion, no matter how well written, cannot create a system that restrains government excesses without impinging on legitimate police investigations while obtaining justice for victims. That is neither the role nor the intent of the courts.
To the detriment of Americans, the Miranda decision would not be the last time the Supreme Court pretends to be a legislature. If we truly want to improve police procedure, or for that matter, anything about America, we should encourage thoughtful and comprehensive legislative reforms, rather than judicial fiats, which rarely succeed as intended. Let’s remember that when we make our choices this election year.