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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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A Real World Case Study: Homicide by David Simon

Directions

In this activity, you will consider one of the main points of Chief Justice Warren's decision in Miranda and how it relates to real-life police work as depicted in David Simon's book about Baltimore Police Department homicide detectives. You will examine passages and answer questions in small groups. Finally, you will write a short essay in response to the prompt at the end of this activity.

In his majority opinion in Miranda v. Arizona, Chief Justice Warren writes that one of the main purposes of the Miranda warnings is "to make the individual more acutely aware that he is faced with a phase of the adversary system-that he is not in the presence of persons acting solely in his interest." He also disapprovingly cites passages from police interrogation manuals that instruct police to "persuade, trick, or cajole" suspects. Chief Justice Warren writes:

"any evidence that the accused was threatened, tricked, or cajoled into a waiver will, of course, show that the defendant did not voluntarily waive his privilege. The requirement of warnings and waiver of rights is a fundamental . . . and not simply a preliminary ritual to existing methods of interrogation."

Questions to Consider
  1. Why is it important that an accused person be aware that he or she is "faced with a phase of the adversary system", that is, that the police are not on his or her side?  
  2. Should the police be allowed to "persuade, trick, or cajole" people suspected of committing crimes in order to get them to confess? 
  3. What is Chief Justice Warren's goal in trying to ensure that defendants voluntarily waive their privilege before being questioned? 
  4. Have you seen-either in real life, on television or in a movie-an instance of police interrogation that you think violates the standard set by Chief Justice Warren in his opinion? If so, describe it.

In 1991 David Simon, a Baltimore Sun reporter, wrote a book about the Baltimore Police Department's homicide squad. The book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was later adapted for television.

Simon describes in his book how Baltimore homicide detectives deal with the requirements of the Miranda decision. He writes that before a suspect is asked whether he wants to waive his rights and talk about his case, the detective offers him a chance to tell his side of the story, warning that asserting his rights will only make things worse:

"Once you up and call for that lawyer, son, we can't do a damn thing for you. . . . [T]he next authority figure to scan your case will be a tie-wearing, three-piece bloodsucker - a no-nonsense prosecutor from the Violent Crimes Unit . . . And God help you then, son . . . . Now's the time to speak up . . . because once I walk out of this room any chance you have of telling your side of the story is gone and I gotta write it up the way it looks. . . . And it looks right now [like] first- . . . degree murder."

Simon concludes that "the fraud that claims it is somehow in a suspect's interest to talk with police will forever be the catalyst in any criminal interrogation." He says detectives try to get suspects to speak by offering them "the Out." Suspects must be "baited by detectives with something more tempting than penitence. They must be made to believe that their crime is not really murder, that their excuse is both accepted and unique, that they will, with the help of the detective, be judged less evil than they truly are." The goal is to get the suspect to believe the detective is on his side and will help him, when in fact the detective is trying to get the suspect to confess.

Simons, David. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Questions to Consider
  1. Do the actions of Baltimore homicide detectives, as described by David Simon, seem to be in compliance with Chief Justice Warren's opinion in Miranda? Why or why not? 

  2. Do you think it is fair for police officers to deceive or trick suspects in custody? Why or why not? If you do not think it is fair, can you think of circumstances when you think it would be fair? 

  3. How would strict compliance with Miranda change homicide interrogations as depicted in David Simon's book? 

  4. How would strict compliance with Miranda protect individual rights in homicide interrogations as depicted in David Simon's book?

Short Essay

Respond to the following statement in at least three paragraphs. Use what you have learned about the Miranda case as evidence to support your thesis, either agreeing or disagreeing with the statement.

"The Supreme Court's decision in Miranda restricts the ability of the police to fight crime. Police officers are on the front lines in the fight against crime, and they should be allowed to interrogate suspects as they best see fit. Society's right to public safety is more important than the rights of criminals."

< Miranda v. Arizona