The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years later, the Miranda decision hasn’t accomplished what the Supreme Court intended

You have the right to remain silent. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona. The decision requires police to inform suspects of their constitutional rights to remain silent and obtain an attorney before being questioned.

Miranda remains perhaps the most well-known case in criminal law, thanks in no small part to such TV shows as “Law and Order” and movies like “21 Jump Street.” But that’s a bit like saying the electoral college is widely familiar. Most Americans know it’s important, but they are a little fuzzy on the details.

So, in honor of the anniversary, here are two underappreciated sides to Miranda.

Miranda is an important test of how much power and influence the Supreme Court actually has

The case is a key entry in our ongoing discussion about the nature and limits of judicial power.

The Warren Court’s civil liberties and civil rights cases of the 1950s and 1960s prompted scholarly interest in seeing how effectively the court could put its decisions into force beyond its own marble halls.

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Gerald Rosenberg’s book, “The Hollow Hope,” was particularly influential in this debate. He concluded that the judiciary’s civil liberties “revolution” (including Miranda) largely failed. Courts couldn’t prompt sweeping social change, particularly when political leaders and the public were opposed to their decisions. Other scholars tried to rebut Rosenberg’s claims, identifying specific rulings and issues (such as pay equity reform) in which the court’s decisions did change people’s behavior and attitudes.

Miranda serves as an especially significant test case because it was so widely unpopular when first handed down. In addition to opposition by politicians, a Harris poll conducted a few months after the opinion found that 57 percent of respondents thought it “wrong,” with only 30 percent calling it “right.” Gregory Caldeira argued that as a result of a host of such decisions, public support for court hit “rock bottom” in 1971.

Police and prosecutors also protested the ruling, predicting that controlling crime would be harder. Even a few lower court judges bristled. Two months after the Miranda ruling, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit called the opinion “disturbing” and said judges “were not meant to write codes of criminal procedure.”

Despite this initial, widespread disapproval, abundant evidence shows that over the years, the basic Miranda rules were accepted by society. As the political scientist Matthew Hall puts it, Miranda gave rise to “numerous, significant changes in the behavior of state and private actors in the criminal justice system.”

Judges complied with the ruling. Police learned to recite the Miranda rights upon arrest. Researchers like Amy Lerman have shown that the public accepted the decision as broadly legitimate even while remaining skeptical of the court’s underlying philosophical commitment to “constitutional protections for the accused.” As William Rehnquist, the former chief justice, wrote in 2000, the Miranda decision has “become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.”

What accounts for the court’s success in implementing the ruling? Hall argues that it’s partly because Miranda was a “vertical” decision – that is, one that could be put into practice without a great deal of support from the public or elected officials. The judiciary needed cooperation primarily from police and prosecutors, who mostly concluded that the Miranda warnings did not hamper their work.

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The court’s ability to change beliefs about rights is revealed in a 2000 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates poll. A remarkable 86 percent of respondents agreed that police should be required “to inform arrested suspects of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during any questioning.” This support was strong across party and region, regardless of whether a person generally had confidence in the court or not.

But the Supreme Court’s achievements in Miranda may be less than meets the eye

While all of this makes it appear that the Supreme Court is a potent agent of change, a second underappreciated feature of Miranda is that it may not actually accomplish what the court intended.

We have good reasons to believe the ruling’s goals have been blunted if not subverted. Legal scholar Richard Leo argues that “the Miranda ritual makes almost no practical difference in American police interrogation.”

Roughly 80 percent of suspects waive their Miranda protections and agree to talk with police.

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As the court wrote five decades ago, Miranda was based on a belief that “in-custody interrogation … contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely.” In other words, being questioned by police when you aren’t free to leave makes it hard to exercise your constitutional rights.

Miranda offered two solutions to this problem. First, police had to create a kind of legal “circuit breaker.” By emphasizing that lawyers were available and that “anything you say can be used against you,” Miranda tells a suspect that she or he is facing a legal adversary (someone “not acting solely in his interest”).

But not surprisingly, this message often gets lost. After reciting the Miranda rights, interrogators use a number of tactics – including frequently convincing suspects that police are on their side. They persuade the accused that she is better off telling her story to a sympathetic law enforcement agent, rather than waiting for a hostile district attorney.

The second safeguard Miranda is supposed to provide is the more obvious one: The required warnings teach citizens about their constitutional protections. As two legal commentators summarize, Miranda gives the accused “a moment to consider the rights bestowed upon them by the Constitution and make an informed decision about whether to waive those rights.”

But the ruling’s ability to educate is limited. The opinion only makes police tell suspects about a small subset of their constitutional rights, often by rote. Miranda does not require that the police make sure the accused understands how his or her liberties operate or what the consequences may be of talking to police anyway.

Here’s why the U.S. allows this mixed legacy of Miranda

Why do we allow this odd state of affairs? In the abstract, we require that citizens be made aware of their civil liberties. But in practice, we allow them to be left ignorant.

One answer is that the law is too complex and dynamic to be covered by anything other than limited or even cursory protection — at least until a suspect’s attorney is at hand. Since Miranda was issued, the Supreme Court has handed down more than two dozen major decisions applying the ruling, usually limiting its scope. There is no obvious way that police could explain these intricacies to those accused of crimes.

But there’s a broader answer. Miranda shows how our criminal justice system balances a commitment to legal literacy with other commitments, including enabling law enforcement to do its job and treating individuals as responsible for their knowledge and actions.

One principle of criminal law, known as legality, requires that the government make its statutes public and knowable in advance so individuals can follow those laws. The flip side of this precept is that “ignorance of the law is no defense,” putting the burden on citizens to know what the law requires.

Bruce Peabody is a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. He is co-author of a forthcoming book about American heroism and the editor of “The Politics of Judicial Independence: Courts, Politics, and the Public.”