Focus on the Fifth: Miranda v. Arizona

The cases before us raise questions which go to the roots of our concepts of American criminal jurisprudence: the restraints society must observe consistent with the Federal Constitution in prosecuting individuals for crime.

To outsiders of the legal profession, the 33-word sentence above by Chief Justice Earl Warren may appear distant and unfamiliar. It certainly lacks the flourish of more memorable introductions, such as "We the People" or even "Four scores and seven years ago." However, if books shouldn't be judged by their covers, then Supreme Court decisions definitely shouldn't be judged by their introductions, for the words that flowed from that opening sentence formed one of the United States Supreme Court's more memorable judicial decisions.

These words opened Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the Supreme Court case that introduced the Miranda warning into the American lexicon. That admonition, which has been paraded through countless movies and television dramas, basically warns persons in custody prior to an interrogation of their following constitutional rights:

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

The sanction for failing to deliver a Miranda warning prior to a custodial interrogation is quite severe. It raises an irrebuttable presumption that statements made by a suspect during such an interrogation were involuntary. And, because the Fifth Amendment protects persons from being "compelled in a criminal case to be a witness against himself," a court will generally suppress a defendant's statements obtained during such an interrogation at trial.

Despite the seemingly entrenched position that the Miranda warning holds in our legal and popular culture, Dickerson v. United States, a case heard by the United States Supreme Court during the October 1999 term, threatened to unseat Miranda's 30-year reign.

In Dickerson, the defendant Dickerson confessed to being the driver of a getaway car in a series of bank robberies. However, the District Court suppressed the defendant's confession because it found that Dickerson made the statement "in police custody, in response to police interrogation, and without the necessary Miranda warnings."

On appeal, one question before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether 18 U.S.C.A. § 3501, a post-Miranda statute enacted by Congress as part of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, was constitutional. This statute states, in part, that "[i]n any criminal prosecution brought by the United States . . . a confession . . . shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given." If this statute is constitutional, it would return the standard governing the admissibility of confessions back to the pre-Miranda voluntariness standard.

The Fourth Circuit made the following findings:

  1. Congress has the power to overrule judicially created rules of evidence and procedure that are not required by the Constitution. Thus, whether Congress has the authority to enact § 3501 turns on whether the rule set forth by the Supreme Court in Miranda is required by the Constitution.
  2. At no point did the Supreme Court in Miranda refer to the warnings as constitutional rights. Indeed, the Court acknowledged that the Constitution did not require the warnings, disclaimed any intent to create a "constitutional straightjacket," referred to the warnings as "procedural safeguards," and invited Congress and the States "to develop their own safeguards for [protecting] the privilege."
  3. Since deciding Miranda, the Supreme Court has consistently referred to the Miranda warnings as "prophylactic," and "not themselves rights protected by the Constitution."

Based on these findings, the Fourth Circuit concluded that "§ 3501, enacted at the invitation of the Supreme Court and pursuant to Congress's unquestioned power to establish the rules of procedure and evidence in the federal courts, is constitutional." Therefore, the court held that "the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed by § 3501, rather than the judicially created rule of Miranda."

Miranda Survives

On June 26, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the Miranda decision. In Dickerson v. U.S., the Supreme Court held that Miranda, "being a constitutional decision of th[e] Court, may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress, ..." The Court also declined to overrule Miranda itself, and declared "that Miranda and its progeny in this Court govern the admissibility of statements made


  • Supreme Court Center Features party and amicus curiae briefs from the Dickerson v. United States case.
  • FindLaw's Criminal Law Center: Miranda Warnings and Police Questioning
  • ACLU Amicus Curiae Brief in United States v. Dickerson in Support of Rehearing. U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.
  • Beyond Miranda By Edward M. Hendrie, J.D., a legal instructor at the FBI Academy.
  • Intentional Violations of Miranda: A Strategy for Liability By Kimberly A. Crawford, J.D., a legal instructor at the FBI Academy.
  • Miranda Rights From American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Online exhibit includes Chief Justice Warren's handwritten notes concerning the Miranda decision and Justice Brennan's comments on the Miranda decision.
  • Miranda v. Arizona Features the oral argument, docket, abstract, voting, and annotations. From The Oyez Project, Northwestern University.
  • "Police Interrogation in the 1990s: An Empirical Study of the Effects of Miranda" By Professor Paul G. Cassell and Bret S. Hayman.42 UCLA L. Rev. 839 (1996)

Use Your Miranda Rights: Contact a Defense Attorney

While you've probably heard the Miranda warnings over and over again in television shows, don't let that take away from their significance. They've been, and continue to be, strongly rooted in the criminal justice system and the failure to provide them could result in the removal of evidence against you. Exercise your rights and learn more about other protections in the criminal justice system by contacting a criminal defense attorney today.

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