Video footage shows a young man in a dark baseball cap shrugging a bulky backpack off his shoulder and walking away. Bombs explode, killing three people and injuring over 100 at the April 2013 Boston Marathon finish line. After a tense, four-day manhunt, the authorities arrest a severely injured young man who strongly resembles the man in the video. Other evidence appears to link the man to the crime. While the man is in the hospital for treatment to his injuries, the FBI questions him without reading him his rights. If the evidence they obtain further supports the case against the young man, should we care if the cops ever give him a Miranda warning?
The answer is yes, and this article explains why.
For more information about the Miranda case and Miranda rights in general, see Miranda Rights: What Happens If The Police Don't Read Your Rights.
The “right to remain silent” recital that we commonly see on movie and television screens (and which some of us have heard in person) is often referred to as the Miranda warning. This name comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case (Miranda v. Arizona) that first defined the requirement that police officers must warn a person of his or her right to remain silent (and have an attorney present) before they question the person while in custody. Although the Miranda warning is familiar to us, it is useful to consider the Constitutional rights it is designed to protect.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents people from being forced to incriminate themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court described this right as “a mainstay of our adversary system of criminal justice.” Under the adversary system, the state and the person in custody are on opposing sides and the advantage is generally with the more powerful party (in other words, the government). The Supreme Court emphasized in the Miranda case that reading a person his rights before questioning counter-balances the inherently coercive environment of a police station or in-custody interrogation.
The public benefits in three ways by the Miranda warning. As individuals, each of us benefits when we are apprised of our rights while in custody. The public also benefits because if rights are not read to the person in custody, a court may exclude evidence the police obtain as a result of that questioning. This may even lead to the suspect being acquitted (in spite of strong evidence of guilt). Finally, as a society, we all have an interest in the fairness of criminal trials, a key element to a democracy. Coercive questioning, which can occur when officers question a person who is ignorant of their rights and who may, for various reasons, be vulnerable to coercion, can lead to unfair trials, conviction of the innocent or mentally ill, and other unfair results.
By providing these benefits, the Miranda warning instills public trust, allowing our system of justice to function. If the government were allowed to operate without it, we risk losing that trust. For that reason, Miranda has become one of the most essential bricks in the foundation of our justice system and we should always care whether it is honored. If we don’t, the notion of “justice” becomes a fiction.