The Origin and Meaning of the Miranda Warnings

The Miranda warnings are part of American criminal justice and American popular culture.  Where do they come from? What do they mean?

Ernesto Miranda was the name of a 23 year old Mexican immigrant.  The United States Supreme Court in 1966 announced a constitutional rule of criminal procedure requiring that police must advise a suspect of several constitutional rights prior to nterrogation.  If the police do not, any statements made by the suspect may not be used against him in prosecuting a crime. The title of the case was Miranda v. Arizona.

The warnings became known as “Miranda warnings”.  Ernesto Miranda’s name has even become a verb: to Mirandize.

The Standard Miranda Warning (Miranda Rights)

Law enforcement officers carry with them a form to advise an individual being arrested:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

The Arrest and Trial of Ernesto Miranda

In 1963 Ernesto Miranda was arrested in Phoenix as a suspect for kidnapping and rape. Police questioned him in a special interrogation room, “Interrogation Room No. 2″ of the detective bureau.  After two hours, the officers came out of the interrogation room with a written confession.  Miranda had signed the confession and typed at the top document a paragraph stated the confession was made voluntarily, without threats or promises of immunity and “with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me.” The victim identified him in a lineup.

Two weeks later at a preliminary hearing, Miranda again was denied counsel.

At Miranda’s trial the officers admitted at that Miranda was not advised that he had a right to have an attorney present. Miranda’s trial attorney objected to the use of the statements.  The trial judge overruled the objection and the confession was used against him.

Miranda was convicted. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. His conviction was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which affirmed.

The Supreme Court Decision in Miranda v. Arizona

In 1966 his case reached the United States Supreme Court.  There had been protections in place for the Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination when the case reached the Court.  The major protection of that right had been that a statement, to be used in court against a defendant, had to be voluntary.[1] The Court determined there was no way to be sure a statement was voluntary unless there was certainty a suspect was aware of his rights.  The only way to be sure he knew was to tell him.

The Supreme Court found that Miranda’s rights derived from the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Bill of Rights  had been violated overturning his conviction. In doing that, the Court announced the rule that suspects needed to know their rights in order to waive them, leading to the warnings that bear Ernesto Miranda’s name.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The Fifth Amendment covers many subjects: Grand Juries, double jeopardy and the protection of private property. A clause of the Amendment gives rise to the right against self-incrimination. The relevant portion follows:

“No person shall… be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Miranda Warnings come not only from the Fifth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment addresses many subjects including: speedy trial, jury trial, location of trial and cross examination of witnesses. The Sixth Amendment also includes the right to an attorney:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Combining the Amendments: The Miranda Warnings

The US Supreme Court decided that if someone was not aware of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, then the right may as well not exist. The Court also relied upon a 1963 case, Gideon v. Wainwright  which recognized the right to counsel[2] as critical to a person’s defense. Unless someone knows that they are entitled to have an attorney that right is practically non-existent as well. The knowledge that there is a right to an appointed attorney is as critical as simply the right to consult an attorney.  Combining the two, the Miranda Warnings were born.

How the Miranda Warnings Work in Criminal Prosecutions

The Warnings are not needed for a criminal prosecution.  TV police have the time and script writers to see to it that the warnings are integral to the arrest process.  In real life arrests the luxury of a script does not exist and an arrest may take place without the delivery of the warnings.

There is an impression from entertainment arrests that failure to give warnings makes a real life arrest illegal.  The lack of warnings does not make an arrest invalid.  The consequence of failing to give an arrestee Miranda warnings is that if the subject makes any statements prior to being warned, those statements may not be used in a criminal prosecution.

The Warning Process to Obtain Admissible Statements

The warning process consists of three steps before statements of the accused can be used against him:

  • The warnings must be given
  • The suspect must acknowledge they were given
  • The suspect must freely waive his rights

Once these conditions are met, statements made and evidence[3] gathered as a result of the statements can be used against him. If these three things do not happen, the evidence is excluded, and cannot be used by the state at trial.

For statements and other evidence to be excluded the defense must make a request of the court.  Procedurally, this happens by way of motions to suppress statements or evidence. The timing of these motions is addressed in the Felony Process.xc

Following the Boston Marathon Bombing, there was much discussion about the Public Safety Exception to Miranda Warnings.  Much reporting gave the public misinformation.  It is critical to remember that “warnings” are given, but the “rights” to Remain Silent and Counsel come from the Constitution and belong to a suspect.

What Happened to Ernesto Miranda?

The Supreme Court overturned his conviction. He did not go free. He was tried again. At the new trial he was found guilty, without his statements as evidence. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison, and released in 1972. In 1976 he was killed in a Phoenix bar. A suspect was arrested in his killing. The suspect was advised of his right to remain silent and did so. No one was ever convicted in the killing of Ernesto Miranda.


[1]The test of “voluntary” had been determined on a case by case basis.  Miranda, by providing a procedural protection against self-incrimination tried to minimize the case-by-case situation.  This was analogous to doing away with the “special circumstances” test for the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants as was done in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.  See, Gideon v. Wainwright, 50 Years Later, Did Clarence Gideon Write His Appeal? Part 1

[2]In Gideon, the court confirmed the right of an indigent criminal defendant to have court appointed counsel.

[3]If there are statements obtained from a suspect that have not met the conditions of Miranda and the statements lead police to other inculpatory evidence, that evidence is excluded as well, as “fruit of the poisonous tree”.

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