Thirty-four years after they were established by an Earl Warren Supreme Court ruling, the Miranda warnings are again being debated by the nation's highest judicial body. The warnings, described by Justice Stephen G. Breyer as a "hallmark of American justice," provide essential safeguards for people against the power of the police. The ruling, which requires that police inform arrested individuals of their rights, is being challenged on the basis of an obscure section of a 1968 crime bill that was ignored until a surprising ruling earlier this year. A Virginia bank robbery suspect made incriminating statements before he was read his Miranda rights, and to the amazement of most of the legal community, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the confession to be admissible in court.
The Miranda warnings have come to embody the rule of law that distinguishes America from so many other nations, where coercion of confessions is commonplace. They provide assurance that only truly voluntary confessions, made after individuals knowingly waive their rights, can be admissible in court. The Miranda ruling unequivocally ensures that all suspects are aware of their right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
University of Utah Professor Paul Cassell, presenting the arguments against Miranda, contends that the 1968 federal law supersedes the Supreme Court decision. The 1968 law, a Congressional reaction to outrage over the first Miranda decision, allows "voluntary" confessions to be used in court even if suspects had not been read their Miranda rights. The original ruling, he argues, was a "provisional, interim judgment" to allow Congress to consider other appropriate alternatives. However, even judges who have been critical of Miranda find that argument difficult to accept. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a conservative who has expressed distaste for the ruling in the past, seemed to acknowledge that Miranda is constitutionally necessary.
To scrap the Miranda ruling now would overturn decades of precedent and dozens of previous Supreme Court decisions. The court has thrown out numerous state convictions since 1966 on the premise that suspects' confessions are inadmissible if they are not first read their rights. If the Miranda warnings were not required, America would risk returning to an era when it was much more difficult to determine whether a confession was truly voluntary. Before the decision, suspects were occasionally held in isolation for extended periods of time in the hope that they would confess. The Supreme Court was forced to decide whether these confessions were voluntary on a case-by-case basis; before Miranda, there was no uniform test that could evaluate the admissibility of a confession.
All sides admit that there are some unfortunate effects of the ruling; no one enjoys seeing an admitted rapist set free, as Ernesto Miranda was years ago in the case that gave the ruling its name. However, that is the price that a society pays for a judicial system that protects the rights of the accused as well as the rights of the victims.
Our society decided 34 years ago to make that sacrifice, and although it is sometimes painful, it was the right choice.
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