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Why Miranda Still Fascinates Us
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Why Miranda Still Fascinates Us

by Gail Malm Armstrong, CER, CET

"Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent." That famous line was repeated weekly by the fictional Detective Sergeant Joe Friday as part of the television series named Dragnet during the 1960s. The plots covered crimes from theft to burglary to kidnapping to homicide. Inevitably near the end of each episode, a suspect was administered his advice of rights.

Recently I read an article entitled 50-year Story of Miranda Warning Has the Twists of a Cop Show.1 The article appeared online in the American Bar Journal Magazine in February of 2017. I found that article after reading another American Bar Journal article entitled Miranda Warning Translations Should be Developed for non-English speakers, the ABA House Resolves.2 Reading the 50-year Story made me want to learn more about the history of Miranda warnings, a series of sentences that most of us can recite verbatim and that regularly appears in the scripts of movies including Dragnet.

“On March 13, 1963, petitioner, Ernesto Miranda, was arrested at his home and taken in custody to a Phoenix police station. He was there identified by the complaining witness."3 Miranda was questioned by two police officers without an attorney present and without being advised that he had the right to ask for an attorney. Miranda signed a confession and was unaware that he had the right to remain silent. At the top of his statement was a typed paragraph stating that 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,"3. Ernesto Miranda was charged with robbery, kidnapping, and rape. He was convicted by an Arizona court. An appeal was taken to the Arizona Supreme Court which affirmed the conviction.

From there the case was appealed and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1966, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Miranda's conviction ruling that an accused must "fully be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him,”3. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the warnings must be given but did not supply the actual wording for the warnings. The 50-year Story of Miranda Warning supplies a fascinating explanation of how the wording for the Miranda warnings came to be as we know them now.

After 1966, television shows such as Dragnet began showing police officers delivering the Miranda advice of rights. Where did the exact wording originate? In 1966, California's Attorney General Thomas Lynch organized a state conference of law enforcement to discuss the language. He wanted something that was easy for police officers to use and remember. Lynch assigned the task to Deputy State Attorney General Doris Maier and Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner. Berliner and Maier sat down for a few hours and crafted the language that would express the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in simple enough language for a police officer to use and for a suspect to understand. Berliner also owned a printing press and had laminated wallet-size cards printed up for police officers to carry in their pockets for handy access to the language of the advice of rights. Jack Webb, who produced Dragnet wrote the Miranda warnings into the show's episodes. The warnings were often delivered by the show's straight-faced Detective Joe Friday.

After the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court Miranda ruling, some agencies argued that the rate of conviction for crimes went down as police officers felt shackled by the need to explain the advice of rights when questioning suspects. Others, such as Professor Stephen Schulhofer from New York University School of Law, have debated the effects of Miranda for many years. Professor Schulhofer believes that the conviction rates have decreased by very little.1

In 1969, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, was critical of Miranda rights and wrote "uncoerced statements of the defendant will not be admissible at his trial unless an elaborate set of warnings be given, which is very likely to have the effect of preventing a defendant from making any statement at all,"1. Other cases such as Berghuis v. Thompkins have ruled "that a suspect could waive their rights and that police did not have to secure an explicit waiver before beginning interrogation."4

What happened to Ernesto Miranda? Between various sentences to prison time, he tried to sell autographed copies of Miranda warning cards. Miranda was stabbed to death during a card game. Two suspects were arrested and given their Miranda warnings. Both chose the right to remain silent and refused to talk. They were released due to lack of evidence and fled to Mexico never to be seen in Arizona again.1 How fascinating that the language of the Miranda warning was composed in part by a woman, that the warning became part of television culture, and that even to this day it is used by law enforcement and yet still debated in courts around the United States. The story is full of twists and turns indeed.

150-year story of the Miranda warning has the twists of a cop show

2Miranda warning translations should be developed for non-English speakers, the ABA House resolves

3Miranda v. Ariz., 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966)
4Berghuis v. Thompkins, 557 U.S. 965, 130 S. Ct. 48 (2009)


Gail Malm Armstrong is an AAERT Certified Reporter & Transcriber & Chair of the AAERT Communications Committee.


Gail Malm Armstrong, CER, CET



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