When a criminal suspect is arrested anywhere in the United States, police must advise the person of his Fifth Amendment rights, including the right to consult a lawyer and the right to remain silent.
If police fail to issue these warnings before the suspect confesses his crime, a judge is required under existing US Supreme Court precedent to throw out the confession - even if it means the guilty will go unpunished.
Today, the high court begins considering whether to overturn the 34-year precedent that created the so-called Miranda warnings and the exclusionary rule they trigger.
If the high court strikes down the Miranda decision it would put an end to the national standard that has governed police interrogations since 1966.
And it would gut one of the best-known landmark cases decided during the criminal-rights revolution of the high court under then Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Instead of a constitutional mandate applicable nationwide, a reversal of Miranda would leave it to law-enforcement agencies or state governments to establish their own rules for when and how to advise suspects of their rights. It would also leave it to state lawmakers to decide whether a voluntary confession obtained prior to such warnings should be used against a suspect at trial.
While such a decision could result in a patchwork of different standards across the country, many law-enforcement officials say they don't see that happening. "Miranda will continue to be used every bit as much as it is now," says Thomas Rutherford, general counsel of the Fraternal Order of Police. "I don't think police conduct is going to change."
What would change, he says, is that states would have the opportunity to permit the use at trial of confessions obtained prior to Miranda-type warnings, when a judge is able to determine that the confession was given voluntarily.
Miranda supporters say this would water down constitutional protections and could open a door to police abuses. And they warn that overturning such a widely accepted and well-known law holds other dangers.
"Miranda's specific holdings have been widely popularized through the media and accepted in the legal culture," says Washington lawyer James Hundley in his brief to the court. "Departing from them would erode public confidence in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system."
Lisa Kemler of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers agrees.
"It is a means by which the court has set out to ensure that force and effect is given to people's Fifth Amendment rights," she says. "That is pretty important, knowing that you have a right not to incriminate yourself."
She adds that Miranda warnings are a useful tool for police, because they help demonstrate to judges that a confession made by a suspect in police custody was, in fact, voluntary.
At issue is a federal law Congress passed in 1968 in an attempt to legislatively overrule the Miranda decision. The controversial law, referred to as Section 3501, says that it should be up to a judge to determine whether a confession is involuntary and thus inadmissible at trial. It sought to overturn the automatic exclusion of confessions when Miranda procedures weren't precisely followed.
The law has been on the books for 32 years, but has been largely unenforced.
That changed with the case of Charles Thomas Dickerson. The Maryland man was accused of involvement in a 1997 bank robbery in Alexandria, Va.
When FBI agents caught up with him, he gave an incriminating account of his involvement in the robbery and signed a statement saying he'd been advised of his rights. But in a pre-trial hearing, the judge ruled that Mr. Dickerson signed after he gave his account, and thus it could not be used as evidence at his trial.
A federal appeals court in Richmond overturned the judge, citing Section 3501 as a valid - if somewhat unused - law. Specifically, the court ruled that the 1966 Miranda decision merely established suggested procedural safeguards, rather than mandating that Miranda warnings are a bedrock constitutional requirement.
That decision opened the door for the high court to examine the issue.
Letting criminals walk?
An array of police organizations and victims' rights groups are urging the high court to eliminate the exclusionary rule, saying it arbitrarily frees admitted criminals. "Every individual police officer has their own anecdotal evidence of people who are known criminals and who are definitely guilty but are released because of this technicality," says Mr. Rutherford.
Trial lawyers and civil libertarians counter that the Miranda decision established workable rules for police that helped protect the rights of the accused, while not substantially hindering the ability of law enforcement to prosecute crime.
They say without the safeguards inherent under the Miranda decision, law-enforcement officers might revert to beatings, torture, and other abusive methods to coerce confessions.
"Custodial interrogations today involve the same inherent compulsion that they did when Miranda was decided," says Jonathan Abram in a brief filed for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Police manuals and reported cases continue to detail the sometimes illegal lengths to which law-enforcement officials will go ... to get a confession from a suspect."
A decision is expected by late June.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society