One of America's most famous legal landmarks has been upheld in a strong reaffirmation of the constitutional right to be free from coercive police interrogations.
In a 7-to-2 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the failure by police to give so-called Miranda warnings of the "right to remain silent" automatically bars them from using a suspect's confession as evidence in trial.
In reaffirming the 1966 case, Miranda v. Arizona, the majority rejected an invitation to jettison 34 years of jurisprudence that civil libertarians say has provided important safeguards to criminal defendants and sought to guarantee a level of fundamental fairness in the American system of justice.
"The decision represents a vitally important reaffirmation by the Supreme Court of the national commitment to civil liberties for persons in police custody," says Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who filed a brief for the House Democratic Leadership in support of Miranda.
In its ruling, the high court declined to endorse an attempt by Congress more than 30 years ago to legislatively overturn the Miranda decision. That law, long ignored on the books, had instructed judges that they should take other factors into consideration in deciding whether a confession was made voluntarily and in compliance with constitutional safeguards.
Instead, the majority reaffirmed basic ruling in Miranda, that police must warn suspects of their right to remain silent and consult a lawyer. Any failure to warn them of those rights prior to a police interrogation will automatically result in the exclusion from trial of any incriminating statements made by the suspect. The warnings have become known as a result of their inclusion in many television and movie scripts.
"Miranda has become imbedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority. "Miranda announced a constitutional rule that Congress may not supersede legislatively."
The 15-page decision points up the importance of such constitutional safeguards to anyone facing arrest in the US who is unaware of the right to remain silent, and to consult a lawyer prior to answering any questions from police.
Defense lawyers and civil libertarians had warned that if the high court overturned Miranda, it could prompt police to revert to unfair, coercive, and perhaps even brutal interrogation tactics to force arrested suspects into confessing, rather than fully investigating crimes. The ruling marks a setback to law-enforcement officials and some victims rights groups, who saw the case as an opportunity to close what they viewed as a loophole that permitted some admitted criminals to avoid punishment because of what they call a legal technicality.
"It's a sad day for victims of crime and law-abiding Americans. Thousands of dangerous criminals will be set free because police officers made some mistake with the highly technical Miranda rule," says Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah who argued to overturn Miranda.
In a 23-page dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the majority of engaging a "radical revision" of constitutional doctrine and of seeking to expand the Constitution. "That is an immense and frightening antidemocratic power."
For 34 years the court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona has required law-enforcement officials to advise arrested suspects of their constitutional right to remain silent and consult a lawyer prior to making any self-incriminating statements.
To ensure a high price for noncompliance by police, the court established a rule in which any statements obtained prior to the Miranda warnings must automatically be barred from use as evidence at the suspect's trial. Supporters of the provision say it gives teeth to Fifth Amendment guarantees that a person can't be forced to become a witness against him or herself.
The essence of the 1996 Miranda decision is that suspects in police custody must be advised of their rights so that any statements they make to police - including incriminating statements - are the result of voluntary and knowing actions rather than coercion or ignorance.
The issue arose in the case of a Maryland man Charles Dickerson who was suspected of involvement in a bank robbery in Alexandria, Va. in 1997. Mr. Dickerson made incriminating statements to federal agents but a judge ruled that the statements could not be used as evidence against Dickerson because the agents had failed to issue Miranda warnings early enough.
A federal appeals court in Richmond reversed the judge, ruling that the statement could still be used at trial if the judge determined that the comments were voluntary.
The appeals court cited a little-noticed federal law passed in 1968 that empowered judges to consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding a confession, rather than just the sequence of when Miranda warnings were given.
At the heart of the case was a legal determination of whether the original Miranda decision was directly anchored in the Constitution, or whether it was simply a series of judicially inspired rules that could be superceded by federal and state laws.
Legal scholars say strong evidence supports both sides. If Miranda wasn't constitutionally mandated, how could the decision have been imposed for all these years? But the other side points to a line of Supreme Court cases that refer to the Miranda warnings as mere rules rather than a bedrock constitutional mandate.
* Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society