Top 10 Cases for Police Series, Part 10

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Editor's Note: With so many cases affecting policing, the question often arises regarding which are the most important. If a law enforcement professional could choose only 10 cases to examine, which would those be? Included in this series is a list of what experts Rolando del Carmen and Jeffery Walker consider to be the top 10 cases most influencing day-to-day policing in the U.S. Continuing from our last installment, in reverse order, we give you number one: Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).


Evidence obtained by the police during custodial interrogation of a suspect isn't admissible in court to prove guilt unless the suspect was given the Miranda warnings and there's a valid waiver.


Miranda was arrested at his home and taken to a police station for questioning in connection with a rape and kidnapping. Miranda was 23 years old, poor and had completed only one-half of the ninth grade. The officers interrogated him for two hours, in which time they obtained a written confession. Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnapping.


Must the police inform a suspect who's subject to a custodial interrogation of his or her constitutional rights involving self-incrimination and right to counsel prior to questioning? YES.

Supreme Court Decision

Evidence obtained by the police during a custodial interrogation of a suspect can't be used in court unless the suspect was informed of the following rights prior to the interrogation:

  1. The right to remain silent
  2. That any statement made can and will be used against him or her in a courtof law
  3. The right to have an attorney present during questioning
  4. If the suspect cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him or her prior to questioning


“The Fifth Amendment privilege is so fundamental to our system of constitutional rule and the expedient of giving an adequate warning as to the availability of the privilege so simple, we will not pause to inquire in individual cases whether the defendant was aware of his rights without a warning being given. Assessments of the knowledge the defendant possessed, based on information as to his age, education, intelligence, or prior contact with authorities, can never be more than speculation; a warning is a clear-cut fact. More important, whatever the background of the person interrogated, a warning at the time of the interrogation is indispensable to overcome its pressures and to ensure that the individual knows he is free to exercise the privilege at that point in time. . . . The warning of the right to remain silent must be accompanied by the explanation that anything said can and will be used against the individual in court. This warning is needed in order to make him aware not only of the privilege, but also of the consequences of forgoing it. It is only through an awareness of these consequences that there can be any assurance of real understanding and intelligent exercise of the privilege. Moreover, this warning may serve 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.”

 “The circumstances surrounding in-custody interrogation can operate very quickly to overbear the will of one merely made aware of his privilege by his interrogators. Therefore, the right to have counsel present at interrogation is indispensable to the protection of the Fifth Amendment privilege under the system we delineate today. Our aim is to assure the individual’s right to choose between silence and speech remains unfettered throughout the interrogation process . . .”

 “The presence of counsel at the interrogation may serve several significant subsidiary functions as well. If the accused decides to talk to his interrogators, the assistance of counsel can mitigate the dangers of untrustworthiness. With a lawyer present the likelihood that the police will practice coercion is reduced, and if coercion is nevertheless exercised the lawyer can testify to it in court. The presence of a lawyer can also help to guarantee that the accused gives a fully accurate statement to the police and that the statement is rightly reported by the prosecution at trial.”

 “We have concluded that without proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of crime contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely. In order to combat these pressures and to permit a full opportunity to exercise the privilege against self-incrimination, the accused must be adequately and effectively apprised of his rights and the exercise of those rights must be fully honored.”

Case Significance

Miranda v. Arizona is, arguably, the most widely known case ever to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. It also has had the deepest impact on the day-to-day crime investigation phase of police work and has led to changes that have since become an accepted part of routine police procedure. No other law enforcement case has generated more controversy inside and outside police circles. Supporters of the Miranda decision hail it as properly protective of individual rights, whereas critics have accused the Supreme Court of being soft on crime and coddling criminals. The 5–4 split among the justices served to fan the flames of the controversy in its early stages, with opponents of the ruling hoping that a change in Court composition would hasten its demise. That has not happened, and neither is it likely to happen in the immediate future. Miranda has survived the test of time and, although the process of erosion has begun in recent years, a complete overruling of Miranda, even by a conservative Court, appears remote.

Miranda is unique in that seldom does the Court tell the police exactly what ought to be done. In this case, the court literally told police what warnings should be given if the evidence obtained from a custodial interrogation is to be admitted in court. Miranda also clarified some of the ambiguous terms used in Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 428 (1964). “By custodial interrogation,” said the Court, “we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” It then added in a footnote: “This is what we meant in Escobedo when we spoke of an investigation which had focused on an accused.” Yet the “focus” test was abandoned by the Court in later cases, preferring to use the “custodial interrogation” test to determine whether the Miranda warnings needed to be given. The Escobedo case brought the right to counsel to the police station prior to trial; the Miranda case went beyond the police station and brought the right to counsel out into the street if a custodial interrogation is to take place.

For many more cases, see Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement, 8th ed., which includes short, easy-to-understand briefs of 185 cases of primary importance to law enforcement officials.


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