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Custodial Interrogation

The Future Of Miranda

Miranda and its progeny have long served as a whipping post for politicians, legal commentators, and others who perceive the decision as "coddling criminals." They argue that the Miranda warnings impede police officers from efficiently and effectively doing their jobs by adding additional layers of unnecessary procedure to the law enforcement process. Miranda critics also maintain that the police are punished, and that society is harmed, when defendants are set free, because key evidence is suppressed after being obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against un-Mirandized confessions. Moreover, Miranda critics contend that criminal suspects seldom fully understand the meaning or importance of the rights recited to them. Finally, critics cite studies indicating that the Miranda decision has had little effect in reducing the number of confessions and requests for lawyers made by suspects in custody.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fueled long-standing speculation that Miranda would be overruled when it held that the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed not by Miranda, but by a federal statute enacted two years after Miranda. The statute, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3501, provides that a confession is admissible if voluntarily given, with the voluntariness of each confession being evaluated by the "totality of the circumstances" on a cases-by-case basis, without any requirement that the defendant be Mirandized. Congress enacted the statute to overturn Miranda, the Fourth Circuit wrote, and Congress had the authority to do so pursuant to its authority to overrule judicially created RULES OF EVIDENCE that are not mandated by the Constitution. United States v. Dickerson, 166 F. 3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In a 7-2 opinion authored by Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, the Court wrote that whether or not it agreed with Miranda, the principles of STARE DECISIS weigh heavily against overruling it then. While the Court has overruled other precedents when subsequent cases have under-mined their doctrinal underpinnings, that has not happened to the Miranda decision, which the Court said "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." Although a few guilty defendants may sometimes go free as the result of the application of the Miranda rule, the Court observed, experience shows that the totality-of-the-circumstances test set forth in Section 3501 is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers and courts to apply in a consistent manner. Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000).

The Court said that a contrary conclusion is not required by the fact that it has subsequently made exceptions to the Miranda rule. No constitutional rule is immutable, much less immune from the sort of refinements Miranda has undergone to adapt to the needs and realities of law enforcement. Moreover, the Court emphasized, these exceptions have reduced some of the law enforcement inefficiencies that Miranda critics were predicting would undermine the efficiency of criminal investigations, as the Miranda warnings are now often provided in a rote and perfunctory manner during arrest and custodial interrogation. "If anything," Rehnquist wrote, "subsequent cases have reduced the impact of the Miranda rule on legitimate law enforcement while reaffirming the decision's core ruling that unwarned statements may not be used as evidence in the prosecution's case in chief."

Dickerson surprised many observers, not only because the Court declined to overrule Miranda, but also because Chief Justice William Rehnquist authored the opinion upholding Miranda, even suggesting that Miranda had become so "embedded" in the nation's JURISPRUDENCE as to be unlikely to be over-turned in the foreseeable future. Most observers consider Rehnquist to be one of the Court's more conservative members. His opinions are frequently joined by fellow conservatives, Justices ANTONIN SCALIA and CLARENCE THOMAS, both of whom dissented in Dickerson. On any number of other issues, civil libertarians have assailed the chief justice for what they regard as his narrow reading of the BILL OF RIGHTS. Dickerson both tempered that criticism and quieted speculation about the future of Miranda.

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