Miranda rights and wrongs

Police officers have read it dozens of times, usually as a suspect is being handcuffed and placed under arrest. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law...” The Miranda warning...


Police officers have read it dozens of times, usually as a suspect is being handcuffed and placed under arrest.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law...”

The Miranda warning may seem easy-to-understand, yet a 2011 university study claims nearly one million criminal cases each year may be compromised in the United States because suspects don’t actually understand their constitutional rights under Miranda.

According to Richard Rogers, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas, the public, police, and sometimes courts wrongly believe that people in custody understand their rights.

“Some offenders are street-wise and legally sophisticated, but far more have a limited and often erroneous understanding of Miranda warnings and the underlying constitutional safeguards,” Rogers says.

Miranda v. Arizona

Miranda protections were embedded in U.S. law following the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona Supreme Court decision, which found that the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of Ernesto Arturo Miranda had been violated during his arrest and trial for domestic violence.

While the Court did not enumerate the exact wording that was to be used when informing suspects of their rights, the Court did issue a set of guidelines that were to be followed. The ruling states: “...The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he or she has the right to remain silent, and that anything the person says will be used against that person in court; the person must be clearly informed that he or she has the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning, and that, if he or she is indigent, an attorney will be provided at no cost...”

Because the Court did not dictate the exact wording of the warning to be read, Rogers found more than 800 different versions of Miranda warnings in current use by police agencies across the country.

Rogers also found the warning varies in reading level from second grade to a post-college level. “My goal is fairness,” Rogers says. “If you are going to give a warning, then make it comprehensible.”

His point is, you can’t always expect an adolescent or an immigrant or anyone else under stress to understand a college-level warning.

Cases compromised

In his research, Rogers analyzed statistics of 9.2 million arrests nationwide in 2009. He estimates that 10 percent of the cases (976,000 arrests) were compromised by problems of suspects understanding the Miranda warnings. Approximately one-third of the arrests (360,000) were adults with mental health disorders, one-third (305,000) were adults without mental health disorders, and one-third (311,000) were juvenile arrests.

One problem is, suspects often assume they know their rights so they don’t listen when police read them. Plus, the warnings sometimes aren’t explained well by police, Rogers says. As a result, defendants often believe wrongly that their silence can be used against them in court.

This misunderstanding of the right to remain silent was revealed in a survey Rogers devised with true-or-false questions about Miranda warnings that was completed by 119 college undergraduates and 149 pretrial defendants held in jails in Texas and Oklahoma. Survey results showed that 31 percent of the defendants and 36 percent of the undergraduates wrongly believed that their silence could be used as incriminating evidence at trial.

Other erroneous perceptions of Miranda were exposed in the Rogers study. Many people, for instance, believe that if a suspect has requested an attorney the police can resume interrogation of the suspect while they wait for the attorney to arrive.

Also, some suspects don’t realize detectives are allowed to lie during questioning and thus falsely claim that eyewitnesses or other evidence implicates the suspect in an attempt to get the suspect to talk.

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