On this day in 1966, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court found that the police must tell suspects of their right to remain silent in Miranda v Arizona. It’s a curious case. It means surprisingly little. Most cases do not depend upon the things that the defendant said. In drug possession cases, for example, it is very simple: the officer said he found drugs on or near the defendant and that’s that. It’s easier to get off a murder charge than a drug charge. So Miranda never meant that much, but it was a good sign that for a bright shining moment, the United States stood up for actual rights and not just theoretical ones.
Unfortunately, Miranda came to be seen as an icon of the state’s supposed placing of criminals’ rights above those of the victim. When I was growing up, every one thought that murderers were commonly set free because some police officer didn’t read the Miranda warning to the letter. This, of course, was not the case at all. Consider for a moment the case at hand. Ernesto Miranda was retried without his confession and found guilty.
Of course, since Miranda, the Supreme Court has found all kinds of exceptions for when the police do not have to provide the warning. It really doesn’t matter. The default here in the United States is that the police must have complete power to coerce suspects — even to the point of providing false confessions (which they do all the time). The United States is an authoritarian country because far too many of us are authoritarians.
At this point, Miranda just provides us with a theoretical right. You have the right to remain silent, unless the police do not want you to. You have the right to an attorney, unless the police don’t want you to. An attorney will be provided for you — eventually — if you live in the right kind of state. (As I recall, in Wisconsin, you are said to be able to afford your own attorney if you make more than $3,000 per year.)
Happy anniversary Miranda v Arizona — for all the good it does us.