Refusing to overturn more than three decades of established law enforcement practice, the Supreme Court yesterday strongly reaffirmed its landmark Miranda decision, which requires police to inform criminal suspects of their rights to remain silent and to be represented by an attorney during interrogation.
In a 7 to 2 opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the high court ruled that the requirement that criminal suspects be read their "Miranda rights" is rooted in the Constitution and cannot be overturned by an act of Congress. Federal lawmakers passed legislation seeking to undo the Miranda decision in 1968, two years after the ruling.
The seven justices in the majority left open the question of whether they would have reached the same conclusion as the original five-justice Miranda majority about the constitutional rights of criminal suspects. But citing the court's long tradition of respect for precedent, the justices said there were compelling reasons not to overrule it now.
"Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," wrote Rehnquist, a frequent and vocal critic of the Miranda decision during his earlier years on the bench.
The court's two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented. In a scathing opinion, Scalia called the Miranda decision "preposterous" and vowed to continue to apply the 1968 law invalidated yesterday to cases that reach the high court.
Civil liberties organizations hailed the decision, but Paul G. Cassell, a University of Utah law school professor who has spent years seeking to undo the Miranda decision, said yesterday was "a sad day for victims of crime and law-abiding Americans."
"The tragic result of today's opinion will be that thousands of confessed, dangerous criminals will go free merely because some police officers have made a mistake in following the highly technical Miranda rules," added Cassell, who argued the case for overturning the Miranda decision before the high court.
Yale Kamisar, a University of Michigan law school professor and staunch defender of the Miranda decision, said that as a result of yesterday's ruling, "Miranda warnings" will become an even more deeply ingrained part of the American criminal justice system. He said it was particularly important that a decisive majority reaffirmed the 1966 ruling, and that the majority opinion was written by Rehnquist, a longtime Miranda critic.
"Now Miranda is stronger than it ever was, which is the last thing people like Cassell wanted," Kamisar said. "I would think that if a President [George W.] Bush got elected and appointed three new justices, they would have a much harder time overturning Miranda than if this case had never reached the court. You gave it your best shot and you lost by a much bigger vote than anybody expected."
Kamisar added that Rehnquist's authorship of the majority opinion should mean "it will be received better by the country and by the police. After all, this is the guy who over the years has been more pro-police than anyone on the Supreme Court."
Attorney General Janet Reno added that "most importantly, [Miranda] will continue to provide a public sense of fairness in our criminal justice system."
The Supreme Court's 5 to 4 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona was one of the most far-reaching and famous decisions in the history of criminal jurisprudence. Under its doctrine, criminal suspects are told that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them, that they have the right to an attorney during questioning and that if they cannot afford an attorney one will be provided for them.
Repeated countless times in television and motion picture police dramas, the Miranda warnings over the years have become one of the best known aspects of the American criminal justice system.
But the Miranda decision was highly controversial at the time. Two years after it was handed down, Congress enacted a law that was intended to nullify it. It did not require suspects to be told of their rights and left trial judges to determine whether a confession was voluntary. The 1968 law, however, was never enforced by a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations that doubted its constitutionality.
Dickerson v. United States, the case that became a direct challenge to Miranda, began with a 1997 bank robbery in Alexandria. Charles Thomas Dickerson, a Maryland man who has been charged with participating in the robbery but has yet to be tried, gave a statement to FBI agents that he later sought to have suppressed on the grounds that he had not been informed of his Miranda rights.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, an activist but conservative panel based in Richmond, ruled that the Miranda decision was not mandated by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and was effectively overturned by Section 3501 of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968.
The Justice Department, which normally defends laws enacted by Congress, in this case came down on the side of the 34-year-old Supreme Court decision. In their briefs, Reno and Justice Department officials argued that "in the years since [Miranda] was handed down, it has become embedded in the law" and has developed into "a constitutional foundation" that cannot be reversed by legislation.
They contended that Miranda was "workable" and "in many respects beneficial to law enforcement" because it provided a clear rule for police to follow. The Justice Department also argued that the familiar warnings were a key to public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Because the Justice Department refused to defend the 1968 law, the Supreme Court appointed Cassell to do the job. Cassell, a former law clerk to Scalia when Scalia was on the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, recruited numerous law enforcement, victims' rights and police organizations to join the Miranda opposition.
Cassell argued that while the Miranda rights flowed from the Fifth Amendment, they were not required by it. He said briefs from law enforcement agencies showed "the real world costs" of Miranda and argued that the Miranda decision recommended procedural safeguards, not a constitutional mandate.
One case cited by Cassell in his briefs involved a Washington state man who had not been read his rights and escaped conviction in the rape of a 12-year-old girl, even though prosecutors said he declared that "she got what she deserved."
The majority rejected Cassell's argument in yesterday's opinion. Rehnquist wrote that it is clear that the original Miranda majority "thought it was announcing a constitutional rule" and that subsequent Supreme Court opinions that recognized exceptions to the Miranda rule did not change that.
"These decisions illustrate the principle--not that Miranda is not a constitutional rule--but that no constitutional rule is immutable," Rehnquist said.
Rehnquist conceded that there have been cases in which statements by guilty defendants have been excluded because they were not told of their Miranda rights. But adopting the Justice Department's argument that law enforcement agencies have become comfortable operating under the Miranda constraints, he said that "experience suggests that the totality-of-the-circumstances test which Section 3501 seeks to revive is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers to conform to, and for courts to apply in a consistent manner."
In his blistering dissent, which ran more than eight pages longer than Rehnquist's majority opinion, Scalia accused the majority of expanding the Constitution in a display of "immense and frightening antidemocratic power."
He chided the other justices for effectively upholding the original Miranda decision but failing to state explicitly the decision's core finding--that criminal interrogations not preceded by the Miranda warnings violate the Constitution.
The majority "cannot say that because a majority of the court does not believe it," Scalia wrote. "The court therefore acts in plain violation of the Constitution when it denies effect to this  Act of Congress."
In a related action yesterday, the court let stand lower court rulings in California that allowed police officers to be sued for continuing to question criminal suspects after the suspect invokes his "right to remain silent."
The Miranda Rights
Under Miranda, a suspect's confessions cannot be used at trial unless he is read statements such as these:
You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.
You have the right to the presence of an attorney to assist you prior to questioning, if you desire.
If you cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to have an attorney appointed for you prior to questioning.
Do you understand these rights?
Will you voluntarily answer my questions?
The 23-year-old was arrested in Phoenix on charges of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman in 1963. During police interrogation, Miranda at first said he was innocent, but after a few hours he described the rape and signed a confession. Police had not told him he had a right to remain silent and to speak to a lawyer before answering any questions.
After his conviction, Miranda appealed, saying his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination was violated. By a 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled on June 13, 1966, that suspects in police custody must be informed of their rights.
Miranda was retried and convicted of kidnapping and rape. He was released from prison in 1972 and died in a bar fight in 1976.