The Weakening of Miranda

In my earlier post, discussing the current challenge to Miranda, I mentioned that the original intent and strength of Miranda v. Arizona has since been deteriorated by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. This post gives a chronology of what I believe to be the weakening of Miranda protections through the years.

An early blow to Miranda occurred in Harris v. New York, in which a 5-4 Court ruled that statements secured in violation of Miranda could still be used to impeach a defendant if he or she took the stand in their defense.

The value of Miranda was truly reduced when the Court began to interpret the terms “custody” and “interrogation.” Since Miranda protections only apply if the suspect was interrogated in police custody, opponents of the law sought to re-define both interrogation and custody. In Oregon v. Mathiason, a suspect not read his Miranda rights confessed to a burglary after the police asked him to come to the station for questioning. The Court upheld the conviction on the grounds that the suspect was asked to come to the station and was not formally arrested before questioning and, therefore, should have felt free to leave at any time.

Similarly, the USSC took a narrow view of interrogation in a case that arose from our own state of Rhode Island. In Rhode Island v. Innis, the suspect was in the car with police and had asserted his Miranda rights. The suspect overheard the police talking about the missing gun and expressing fear that some children might find the gun and injure themselves. The suspect then told the police where to find the gun, thereby incriminating himself. The Court held that this was neither a ploy to coerce a confession, nor qualified as an “interrogation,” and as a result the statement was admissible. Still later, the Court ruled in New York v. Quarles, that Miranda would not apply in instances where the public safety was at risk.

I began discussing Miranda because the USSC is preparing to decide the Powell case in Florida which concerns the proper wording and understanding of Miranda. This is not the first time such a case was heard. In 1989, Duckworth v. Eagan was decided. In this case, the police simply told the suspect that a lawyer would be appointed “if and when you go to court.” The suspect’s conviction was upheld when the Court held that it was not necessary for Miranda warnings to be read exactly as written in the Miranda decision, thereby opening the door for countless interpretation battles.

While the constitutional protections of Miranda remain, it is clearly not the protective force it was in 1966. Through numerous exceptions and limitations, as outlined above, the USSC has limited the force and scope of the 1966 ruling. It will be interesting to see how this most recent case will affect the future of Miranda warnings.