The Weird(ly Short) History of Miranda Rights

Woman behind bars


You might get the impression from police dramas that cops have been advising detainees of their right to remain silent since the ink on the Constitution dried, but there are probably retirees alive today who complained about memorizing the words. In fact, the words you’re thinking of are just one of the many misunderstandings the public has about this landmark legal decision. Yes, Law & Order lied to you.

Miranda Rights Help Everybody (Sometimes Grossly)

One of the Interrogation rooms in The Old Seodaemun Prison

(Noh Mun Duek/Wikimedia Commons)

Before they were forced to read suspects their Miranda rights, police often had problems with defendants claiming they weren’t in their right mind at the time of questioning or only confessed under coercion. Asking suspects to confirm they understand their rights gives them an easy out, so a lot of people still claim coercion, just not very successfully.

Who the Heck is Miranda?

Miranda v. Arizona involved a man named Ernesto Miranda and, sadly, not the jerk lawyer from Sex and the City. He was far from the ideal defendant in a civil liberties case, a 24-year-old high school dropout with a record of peeping tommery. Hey, they need lawyers, too.

The Crime

Maricopa County Courthouse

(Tony the Marine/Wikimedia Commons)

Miranda was convicted of the 1963 kidnapping, rape, and robbery of an 18-year-old woman who gave Miranda’s license plate number to the police after she thought she recognized his car. She couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, but when police brought her before Miranda and asked if she was his victim, he said “That’s the girl.” He also wrote a confession that matched her statement and included the words “this confession was made with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me.” Bing, bang, boom, everyone was home by dinner.

Enter the ACLU

ACLU card

(Scott Feldstein/Flickr)

The question was whether or not Miranda actually had understood his rights, given that nobody actually explained them to him. His attorney appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, insisting the confession was “false and coerced,” at which point the ACLU took notice and put together a Dream Team to argue that Miranda’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights had been violated on the grounds of having no idea what they were and no fancy-suited person sitting next to him who did.

The Decision Wasn’t Unanimous

Supreme Court

(Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons)

The Supreme Court ruled that Miranda’s rights were violated and established a protocol for preventing such cases in the future, but four of the nine justices were against the decision. “Nothing in the letter or the spirit of the Constitution or in the precedents squares with the heavy-handed and one-sided action that is so precipitously taken by the court in the name of fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities,” one of them wrote in his dissent, whatever that means.

Miranda Was Still Convicted

Miranda’s conviction was overturned, but he wasn’t set free. He was just granted a new trial, which … he also lost. The police scrounged up a damning testimony from his ex-girlfriend, and his lawyer admitted he “goofed” the case, having forgotten “about the question of guilt or innocence and a proper presentation on that point because became so wrapped up in getting it dismissed on constitutional questions.” It turns out you don’t have a right to a good attorney.

You’re Not Automatically Freed If You Don’t Hear Your Miranda Rights

Get Out of Jail Free card

(Mark Strozier/Wikimedia Commons)

As you might have gathered, the idea that you can get your case completely thrown out if you just distract the interrogating officer out of reading you your rights is a Hollywood fabrication. It just means they can’t use anything you tell them, so if they caught you waving a bloody machete over a field of bodies, this is not a technicality you’re getting off on.

It Only Applies in Specific Situations

Person in handcuffs


You probably think cops are required to read your Miranda rights at the time they arrest you because of, oh, every single movie and TV show where someone gets arrested, but don’t start ranting that you killed ‘em, you killed ‘em all if they don’t. Miranda rights only apply once you’re in custody and they’re preparing to interrogate you. Everything you say up to that point is fair game.

The Language Isn’t Set in Stone

Miranda warning card

(Gerald L. Nino/Wikimedia Commons)

You probably think you have the Miranda rights memorized: “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you,” and so on and so on. But the Supreme Court ruling didn’t specify any particular language that must be used. In fact, it can differ significantly from department to department. Officers actually have little index cards they read from to ensure they don’t flub anything, so they don’t even really have to memorize them.

There Are Exceptions

There are a bunch of instances when authorities can shine as many flashlights in your face as they want without reading your rights, like when they’re asking for basic info like your birthday or address, when the questioning is done by an undercover agent or jailhouse informant (in which case the flashlight should be a giveaway), or a bomb is going to go off in 10 seconds and no one has time for the Constitution, also known as the public safety exception.

There Were Earlier Precedents

Of course, the Fifth Amendment protects the right to remain silent, but the right to an attorney during questioning, as established by the 1964 decision of Escobedo v. Illinois, is just as important, though you never hear about your Escobedo rights. Danny Escobedo actually knew his rights and demanded an attorney during questioning over the murder of his brother-in-law, but police argued that he hadn’t been formally arrested, which is why it’s “custody” and not “arrest.”

It’s Been Updated

The 1984 case of Berkemer v. McCarty clarified the Miranda ruling on an important point, just not the one they wanted. Before then, there was enough leeway in the law for courts to apply it only to serious offenses, not those like the DUI arrest of this McCarty fellow. The Supreme Court confirmed that the Miranda ruling applied to misdemeanor offenses as well, but McCarty was hoping to get out of the “routine traffic stop” portion of the events, to which the court basically replied, “Bitch, please.”

As Recently As 2010

Traffic stop


It got even sillier in the case of Berghius v. Thompkins, which affirmed that a suspect has to actually invoke their rights, i.e. they have to speak up in order to remain silent. That’s not the silly part. You can, of course, do your mime impression for as long as you want, but as soon as you say “Fifth Amendment,” the questioning has to stop. The defendant argued that his three-hour silence implied his invocation, so his eventual confession didn’t count, which is indeed not how any of this works.

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