Law Cuts Into Miranda Rights
28 April 2000 By Stentor Danielson
The Fifth Amendment guarantees Americans that they will never have to give evidence against themselves in court. For the past 34 years, police have been required to inform suspects of that right. But the Miranda warning, immortalized in the words of nearly every television and movie police officer, may soon become a thing of the past when the Supreme Court rules on the case of Dickerson v. United States.
Miranda rights were established in 1966 when the Supreme Court ruled in Miranda v. Arizona that police must inform all individuals arrested of, among other things, their right to remain silent, and that confessions made before the suspects are properly informed of their rights cannot be counted on as voluntary. This practice has been standard ever since.
Charles Dickerson appealed his conviction for seven bank robberies on the grounds that he had not been properly read his rights, and, therefore, a confession that had been presented as evidence was invalid. But University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell filed a friend of the court brief that alerted the court to a long-ignored law that would seem to invalidate the Miranda ruling. The law, Section 3501, was passed in 1968 to state that a failure to read someone his Miranda rights does not necessarily invalidate confessions. Cassell's argument persuaded the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Dickerson v. United States presents the Supreme Court with an difficult situation. Miranda rights are a simple and effective way to ensure that incriminating evidence provided by the defendant was given willingly. But the court is not in a position to make law, only to interpret the laws that are already on the books.
I am in no position to judge Dickerson's guilt. Section 3501 states only that a court may admit confessions from a suspect not informed of his or her Miranda rights. It is possible that other facts may show that Dickerson's confession was made under duress. But these kinds of judgment calls are what the Miranda ruling was meant to settle.
The principle behind Miranda is simple. Police immediately advise suspects that they have the right to remain silent. Thereafter, law enforcement officials can assume that all statements made by suspects were made in the full knowledge that they did not have to say anything incriminating.
Without Miranda, courts would be forced to look at each confession and examine the circumstances surrounding it, to determine how aware the suspect might have been of their option to keep their mouths shut. With Miranda, they have a simple test. A confession made after hearing the Miranda rights is made with the full knowledge of the Fifth Amendment. A confession made before hearing the Miranda rights is questionable and cannot be trusted.
But many people worry that the Miranda ruling allows criminals who confessed to go free because of a technicality. A slip in proper procedure by the arresting officer could invalidate a mountain of otherwise incriminating evidence.
Those backing Dickerson's conviction cite an opinion issued in 1994 by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia said that ignoring Section 3501 " may have produced ... the acquittal and the nonprosecution of many dangerous felons. ... There is no excuse for this." But Scalia misplaced the responsibility for ensuring that confessions are freely made.
Reading suspects their rights is not an arduous task. The ease with which police forces picked up the mandate, even after Section 3501 was passed, demonstrates that the Miranda warning is a simple procedure. This means that officers can be routinely expected to read suspects their rights just as they can be expected to wear their uniforms and carry their badges.
Worries that neglecting to properly inform suspects of their rights betray a lack of confidence in police to carry out a simple procedure. Despite recent horror stories of police gone bad, I think most officers can be trusted to inform those they arrest of their right to remain silent, a line the vast majority of civilians, through television and movies, know very well.
The blame for acquittals of suspects simply because they were not read their rights does not fall on the Miranda verdict. The problem is one of quality control in police forces.
The Supreme Court may uphold the Fourth Circuit Court's ruling by rightly finding that Section 3501 trumps the Miranda verdict. But this should not mean the end of suspects' right to be informed of their other constitutional rights. Hopefully, police departments will see the value in continuing the practice of reading the Miranda verdict. And it's not too much to ask that Congress eliminate the wrongly-adopted Section 3501.
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