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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (••)

Ernesto Miranda was a poor man living in Phoenix, Arizona in 1963. A Phoenix woman was kidnapped and raped. She identified Miranda in a police lineup. Miranda was arrested, charged with the crimes, and questioned by the police for two hours. The police officers questioning him did not inform him of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or of his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of an attorney. The Fifth Amendment states that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. . . ." The Sixth Amendment states that, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense."

As a result of the questioning, Miranda confessed in writing to the crimes. His statement also said that he was aware of his right against self-incrimination. During his trial, the prosecution used his confession to obtain a conviction, and he was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison on each count.

Miranda appealed his case to the Arizona Supreme Court. His attorney argued that his confession should have been excluded from trial because he had not been informed of his rights, nor had an attorney been present during his interrogation. The police officers involved admitted that they had not given Miranda any explanation of his rights. The state argued, however, that because Miranda had been convicted of a crime in the past, he must have been aware of his rights. The Arizona Supreme Court denied Miranda's appeal and upheld his conviction.

The case comes down to this fundamental question: What is the role of the police in protecting the rights of the accused, as guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution? The Supreme Court of the United States had made previous attempts to deal with these issues. The Court had already ruled that the Fifth Amendment protected individuals from being forced to confess. They had also held that persons accused of serious crimes have a fundamental right to an attorney, even if they cannot afford one. In 1964, after Miranda's arrest, but before the Court heard his case, the Court ruled that when an accused person is denied the right to consult with his attorney, his or her Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of a lawyer is violated. But do the police have an obligation to ensure that the accused person is aware of these rights before they question that person?

In 1965, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear Miranda's case. At the same time, the Court agreed to hear three similar cases. The Court combined all the cases into one case. Since Miranda was listed first among the four cases considered by the Court, the decision came to be known by that name. The decision in Miranda v. Arizona was handed down in 1966.

Questions to Consider
  1. What rights of the accused does the Fifth Amendment protect? The Sixth Amendment? 
  2. If the police had informed Ernesto Miranda of these rights, do you think he might have done anything differently? 
  3. Individual rights must be balanced against the values of society at large. For instance, the right to free speech must be balanced against our desire for an orderly society. This is why demonstrations, while protected by the First Amendment, can have certain restrictions placed on them. In Miranda, what values or goals of society must be balanced against the right against self-incrimination and the right to counsel? 
  4. You are probably learning about the rights of the accused in a government or history class. Some would argue that it is the individual's responsibility to know what his or her rights are under the Constitution, and the government can assume that accused persons know their rights without informing them after they are arrested. Do you think the government should have to inform each individual who is arrested of his or her rights? Why or why not?
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