After `Miranda,' Suspects' Rights Don't End When Cuffs Snap On

`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 an attorney....'' During the past quarter century, most Americans have heard these rights read to suspects so often on television police dramas that the words have nearly lost their meaning. But other Americans have heard these words under circumstances less felicitous than watching TV in their own living-rooms: spread-eagled on a concrete sidewalk, handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser, or isolated in an interrogation room. For suspects being taken into police custody, the reading of these rights constitutes a precious safeguard against age-old enemies of human liberty - coerced confessions, self-incrimination, and rash disclosures induced by panic, confusion, or intimidation.

It was 25 years ago today, in the landmark case of Miranda vs. Arizona, that the US Supreme Court ruled that all suspects must be informed at the time they are taken into police custody of two rights guaranteed to them by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the US Constitution: the right not to testify against themselves and the right to representation by an attorney before any interrogation takes place.

The Miranda case began on March 13, 1963, when two Phoenix, Ariz., police detectives questioned a 23-year-old produce handler named Ernest Miranda about the rape of a young woman. The detectives, who claimed they were sure Miranda knew his rights because he had been arrested several times previously, said that Miranda confessed freely and voluntarily to committing the rape. Miranda said he was tired, confused, and frightened during the interrogation, and that he had confessed only because the officers t hreatened to ``throw the book'' at him unless he admitted the crime.

Three months later, largely on the basis of a confession he signed after the interrogation, Miranda was convicted of kidnaping and rape and sentence to 20 to 30 years in prison on each charge.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and volunteer defense attorneys, Miranda appealed his case to the higher courts of Arizona and, eventually, to the US Supreme Court. While the court's 1964 ruling in Escobedo vs. Illinois had overturned the conviction of a suspect who had repeatedly requested and been denied a lawyer and who had clearly never been informed of his rights, that case had left unresolved questions about just what obligations the police bore to inform suspects of their rights and at what point in the arrest process they must do so.

ON June 13, 1966 the Supreme Court, in a 60-page opinion written and read aloud by Chief Justice Earl Warren, laid down the now famous Miranda guidelines. As expected, the close 5-4 decision by the justices unleashed a firestorm of criticism from law-enforcement officials, already angry about the Warren court's ``coddling of criminals'' in previous cases. At a time of rising crime rates and growing violence in the streets, the Miranda ruling seemed to many Americans precisely the wrong message to be sen ding to potential felons.

Yet for the most part local sheriffs, district attorneys, state judges, and city police officers across the land abided by the Supreme Court's ruling. Officers were issued printed ``Miranda'' cards containing the rights to be read to all suspects. To the surprise of many, the court's decision did not precipitate a rash of crime or inability to obtain convictions. In fact, as scholar Liva Baker points out in her definitive study ``Miranda - Crime, Law and Politics,'' many police officers praised Miranda for clarifying the rules of interrogation and professionalizing the evidence-gathering process.

To be sure, the basic guarantees established by Miranda continue to be challenged. In the late 1960s, leaders as diverse as Richard Nixon and Sen. Sam Ervin vigorously assailed the decision, and in Harris vs. New York (1971) the Supreme Court itself ruled that voluntary confessions obtained from a suspect who had not received Miranda warnings could still be used in court to undermine the suspect's credibility on the witness stand. Supreme Court opinions this spring, suggesting that even coerced testimon y might be admissible as evidence, and that suspects can be jailed for 48 ours without an arrest warrant, signal a continuing erosion of a suspect's rights.

Yet 25 years after its birth, in the 200th year of our nation's Bill of Rights, Miranda still stands as the capstone of a legal edifice built through centuries by courts and congresses and commoners to crush forever the horrors of torture racks, Star Chamber inquisitions, and ``third degree'' interrogations. To all those accused of a crime - the guilty as well as the innocent, the pauper as well as the powerful, the serial killer as well as the shoplifter - Miranda offers the same litany of liberty: ``Y ou have the right to remain silent....''

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