The Supreme Court's 1966 decision in Miranda v. the State of Arizona remains one of the most important decisions in U.S. history. It changed the manner in which law enforcement agencies and the offices of city, county, state and federal attorneys operate in a very fundamental way.
Prior to the decision regarding Ernesto Miranda, who had been arrested and interrogated in 1963 as part of an investigation into the kidnapping and rape of a 17-year old girl, suspects in criminal proceedings -- most of whom were un- or undereducated and had little or no knowledge of their constitutional rights against self-incrimination -- were routinely pressured into confessing to crimes they did not necessarily commit. Without the knowledge of the right to legal counsel and the right not to answer the questions of police interrogators, suspects were at risk of being coerced into confessing to crimes.
In the case of Miranda, who had agreed to sign a confession under pressure, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison, despite the fact that the case against him was based on circumstantial evidence, and that he was ignorant of his constitutional rights when he signed the confession that prosecutors used against him during the trial. Miranda's lawyer had been unsuccessful in having the confession dismissed during the initial trial as well as on appeal with the State appellate court.
The Supreme Court, upon hearing arguments in the case, ruled that Miranda's conviction was unconstitutional because he had been denied his right against self-incrimination. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren stated:
"The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says can be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have a lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him."
Since that decision, police officers are trained to take Miranda v. Arizona into account when making an arrest. Criminal charges have been dismissed because police and prosecutors failed to "Mirandize" the suspects. While many Americans assume that the arresting officers are required to read suspects their rights, per the Miranda decision, however, that is not the case. Police will frequently read suspects their rights upon the arrest, but will also frequently simply remain silent themselves, knowing that certain categories of criminals or suspects -- and juveniles are particularly noted for this -- have a tendency to talk to the police officers transporting them to headquarters for processing. Whether out of fear or stupidity or, in some cases, a psychological "need" to confess their sins, some suspects willingly engage the arresting officers in conversation and make incriminating comments without being asked. In such instances, the comments are admissible in court; the arresting officers were not questioning the suspect, they were simply letting him or her "hang" themselves with their talkativeness. The suspect's rights must, however, be explained to him or her before certain lines of questioning can occur.
While the Miranda decision did affect how police and prosecutors handle suspects, history has indicated that the ability of police to do their job has not been noticably diminished because of the requirment to read suspects their constitutional rights.
Miranda v Arizona was such a landmark case that it affected the day to day operations of law enforcement officials and courts, altered the standard operating procedures for interrogations and served to remind and educate the legal system about proper handling of suspects and what the law is.
For example, almost all police officers now have the Miranda Warning printed on a card in their cruisers, often in more than one language, that they read from verbatim when they arrest a suspect. They are also careful not to question a suspect unless they have been read these rights and acknowledged. It has also made law enforcement more sensitive to the rights of minority, non-English speaking suspects.
Once in custody at a police station, if a suspect asks for a lawyer, police are not allowed to continue questioning them until the lawyer arrives. Often times, police will even stop someone who is saying too much and advise them to wait for an attorney.
If it does proceed to formal charges and court proceedings, then the police must document when and how the rights were conveyed to the defendant.