Classic Criminal Justice Myths - Part One - Miranda

By Don Murray, Esq.

The criminal justice system is plagued by a host of myths, many that I am forced to address on a nearly daily basis as I help clients try to understand their circumstances and evaluate their cases.  Here are a few of the biggies for your consideration.

The All Time Favorite Myth - "The Police Must Read You Your Rights or Else Your Case Will Be Dismissed"

This is the most common mythical belief expressed about the criminal justice system.  If people know nothing else, they know that the police must read you your Miranda Rights or else the case will have to be dismissed. 

Here's the truth:

Not one case in the history of the United States has ever once been dismissed because of a failure of a police officer to read Miranda warnings to a suspect.

Ernesto Miranda was convicted of a terrible crime in Arizona and sent to prison.  As part of the case against him, the state authorities used a statement that Mr. Miranda had made to the police.  Before questioning him, the police did not advise Mr. Miranda that he had the right not to answer their questions.  On appeal, his lawyer made this an issue.  Eventually, this issue made its way to the United States Supreme Court.  Ultimately, as everyone knows, the United States Supreme Court rendered its famous decision in which it created the "Miranda rights" requirement.

But what was this requirement?  The requirement was NOT that all people arrested must have the Miranda rights read to them.  That has never been the rule.  Instead, the rule was, and is, that Miranda rights must be read to a suspect only when two things are true: 1) the suspect is in custody, and 2) the suspect is actually being interrogated.  If either of those two things isn't true, no Miranda warnings are required.  Therefore, simply being arrested only means number 1 is true, but not number 2.  Therefore, being arrested does not require that Miranda warnings be read to anyone.

But wait, there's more.

So what happens if Miranda warnings are required, and the police fail to read them to the suspect?  The case is dismissed, right?

Wrong.

The remedy for a violation of the Miranda rule is that the statement that was obtained improperly (without Miranda rights) is not allowed to be used by Government in its case against the defendant.  

That's right.  The case isn't dismissed.  All the rest of the Government's evidence can be used; all the witnesses, all the expert testimony, all the physical evidence, all the identification evidence, everything else is perfectly fine.  Just that one piece of evidence is cut out of the Government's case.  Nothing is dismissed.

But wait, there's more.

Remember I said that the statement obtained in violation of Miranda couldn't be used "in the Government's case"?  I never said the illegally obtained statement couldn't be used at all.  So if the defendant chooses to testify (in the defense case after the Government rests) the Government is absolutely free to use the illegally obtained statement to cross examine the defendant, if the defendant says anything different on the witness stand than what he said in the illegally obtained statement.  Even though the Government violated the law (the Constitution) in order to get the statement, that statement can still be used to get the defendant if he dares to testify at his own trial.  

Just as a little practical aside, you might be interested to know that there is a school of thought in law enforcement circles that believes that for this reason, the Miranda rule might as well be ignored because obtaining a statement from the defendant, even if it is excluded from the Government's case, will often keep the defendant off the witness stand.  

So what happened to Ernesto Miranda?

Most people assume that Mr. Miranda's case was dismissed by the Supreme Court and this terrible criminal walked away from his case.  But of course that isn't what happened.

The United States Supreme Court did reverse the conviction.  But then the Court referred the case back to Arizona for Mr. Miranda to be tried again, only this time without the illegally obtained statement.

Arizona did take Mr. Miranda to trial again.  He was convicted again, and he was sent back to prison.

The Reality of the Miranda - The Laughingstock of the criminal justice System

Therefore, while the myth of Miranda fuels television and movie legal dramas, it is but a myth.  Miranda is actually one of the best things that ever happened to law enforcement because it created an exceedingly simple bright line test to establish the voluntariness of statements obtained by the police.  Unless there is a claim of physical torture, essentially all the Government must do to establish the admissibility of a statement obtained through interrogation of a suspect in custody is to put a police officer on the witness stand and ask "Did you read him his rights?" to which the officer responds, "Yes." 

Not a particularly subtle or burdensome requirement.  And it is difficult to contradict, since the circumstances are such that the only person who might offer a contrary view of the facts would be the defendant who could testify that the officer did not read him his rights.  So a Judge at a hearing on the Miranda issue hears from a police officer who says, "I read him his rights."  And then the Judge hears from the criminal defendant who says, "He didn't read me my rights."  How do you imagine that is likely to be decided by the Judge, who is required to make a fact finding?

In truth Miranda, over the years has become practically a joke in the tortured ways that even things like "custody" and "interrogation" have been interpreted. 

I had a case once where my client was held in a police precinct for nearly 24 hours, not allowed to leave or make phone calls, or even go to the bathroom without permission, and the Court determined that he was not in custody.  Therefore, no Miranda warnings were required prior to the interrogation that was taking place.  And as wrong as that sounds, the case law was against me on the point.